Anyone who still thinks the Israeli Labor Party can be saved and can bring real peace has a great deal of explaining, and convincing, to do...
Israeli Challenger on the Rise
Ex-General Wants to Lead Labor Party Back to Peace Role
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 30, 2002; Page A01
JERUSALEM, Aug. 29 -- A dovish former general, Amram Mitzna, has burst onto Israel's political stage seeking to lead the Labor Party out of its uneasy alliance with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and back toward its traditional stand of flexibility toward the Palestinians.
Mitzna's swift emergence has become a threat for the previously unchallenged Labor Party chairman, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who as defense minister in Sharon's coalition government has played a key role in Israel's hard-line response to Palestinian violence. More broadly, the clash for the chairmanship has evolved into a battle for the soul of Labor -- the party of Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, and its assassinated Nobel Peace laureate, Yitzhak Rabin, the party of the 1993 Oslo peace accords that still proclaims it is willing to trade land for peace.
The two will be the key contestants in a Nov. 19 election for the party chairmanship. The winner will be Labor's standard-bearer for prime minister in the next general election, which must be held by October 2003 but which could come as early as January.
Mitzna, a former tank commander and mayor of the northern port city of Haifa, said in a recent interview that he wants to take over Labor to revive its image as the party that can bring peace to Israel at the negotiating table instead of on the battlefield.
"I am telling people to take the masks off of the politicians who are not telling them the truth," said Mitzna, 57, one of Israel's most decorated soldiers. "There is a connection between Israel's status today and our occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I'm telling people they are getting lies when they are told that the only way to solve the problem with the Palestinians is by using military power."
Mitzna has stunned pundits with his star's swift rise. At the July convention, Ben-Eliezer looked unbeatable. But since Mitzna announced his candidacy two weeks ago, opinion polls among Labor voters show him trouncing Ben-Eliezer, 62 percent to 32 percent, a sign of how deeply many believe that Labor has lost its way. A third candidate, Haim Ramon, a member of Israel's parliament, was a distant third.
Those on the dovish side of the party say Labor has abandoned its core values. They argue it can capitalize on fatigue with the 23-month-old Palestinian uprising by embracing Mitzna, quitting Sharon's unity government and reasserting Labor's position that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs a political not a military solution.
"Labor today is a sad joke led by someone who does not have a policy and is doing exactly what Sharon wants, which means the destruction of Rabin's legacy," said Yossi Beilin, a longtime Labor activist who supports Mitzna.
He was referring to the Labor prime minister who in the 1990s sold his countrymen on the idea that they could withdraw from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, captured in the 1967 Middle East war, and grant Palestinians a state there in exchange for peace and security guarantees.
Mitzna said he supports an unconditional return to peace talks with leaders of the Palestinians' choosing, including Yasser Arafat, to negotiate "an agreement on all the issues." But if that proves impossible, Mitzna said, he would unilaterally set a border with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, evacuate all Jewish settlers, and surround the territories with "a fence, a wall, a ditch, whatever is needed" to separate the two peoples.
If negotiations fail on Jerusalem, he said, "It will be surrounded with a fence, as it is now."
For those on the right of the party, Ben-Eliezer has correctly read the mood of the country and is trying to reposition Labor to win the votes of Israelis who feel betrayed by Arafat and favor tough military action to protect their security.
"If Ben-Eliezer wins, it will be a leadership of both hawks and doves running on a ticket of security and peace," Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh said. "If Mitzna wins, it will be a party led by dovish peaceniks with a ticket of peace only," and security will suffer, he said.
Sneh has one of six ministries allocated to the Labor Party under Sharon's coalition. Another is the Foreign Ministry, held by Labor stalwart Shimon Peres.
Sneh argued that Labor has exerted a moderating role from within the government. "In the government, Labor struggles and influences, and we confront the right wing," he said. "Outside, as the opposition, we will cry louder, but we will not make a difference."
Israelis will not vote directly for prime minister, as they did in the last election. Instead, they will vote for a party, and the group that wins the most seats in parliament will select its chairman as prime minister. Recent polls put Sharon more than 15 points ahead of his chief rival for leadership of the Likud Party, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The Israeli public has strongly backed Sharon's coalition government and its tough policies. So the key for Labor, political analysts say, is to pick a leader and stake out positions that will win the most seats. Mitzna contends those positions should be to the dovish side of Ben-Eliezer's.
While Ben-Eliezer, as defense minister, is closely identified with the government's popular hard-line strategies, analysts said that because he is from Labor, he does not attract hard-line voters. And at the same time, because of his ties to Sharon, he repels traditional, peace-leaning Labor voters, who would likely stay with Mitzna rather than bolt to a left-wing peace party.
But no matter which man wins, there are serious doubts that Labor can defeat Likud in the next elections.
According to public opinion surveys, Labor under Mitzna would capture about five more seats in the general election than it would under Ben-Eliezer -- but still not enough to win. With the defense minister leading Labor, according to the polls, the party could end up with as few as 16 parliamentary seats, down from the 26 it holds now, which is the fewest the party has had since the Knesset was formed in 1949 and far from a majority in the 120-seat legislature.
"To stay the second biggest party in Israel, and not become the third or fourth, this is the real target," said political analyst Hanan Crystal.
"The point is not to do too badly. Each will accuse the other of leading the party to a worse defeat," said Asher Arian, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.
Nahum Barnea, a leading Israeli columnist, cited a string of problems that have left Labor in its doldrums: the party's role in leading the government when the current Palestinian uprising started in September 2000, the failure of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak to cement a peace deal with Arafat at Camp David in July 2000, the thrashing Sharon gave Barak in the February 2001 election and the party's association with the out-of-favor Oslo accords.
One of the key problems, all three analysts said, is that the Labor Party -- which in general attracts older, secular, well-educated and upper-middle-class Israelis -- has a small and dwindling base. They said it has increasingly alienated Arab voters, about 12 percent of the electorate; Russians, 15 percent; religious voters, more than 20 percent; and middle-class Sephardic voters whose families immigrated from Arab countries.
"The Labor Party has lost its dominance in Israeli politics, and it has lost its strength with the minorities," Crystal said. "With or without the intifada [the Palestinian uprising] or joining with the Likud, the Labor Party is a minority party, and these are factors that can't change in one or two years."