New Candidate for Israeli Premier Seems to Energize the Left
By SERGE SCHMEMANN
(New York Times, 19 August) - HAIFA, Israel, Aug. 16 Fielding calls and reporters in his modest apartment, Amram Mitzna does not give the impression that he was prepared for the political tsunami he set off a few days before.
When a reporter for Irish radio calls and asks for "one minute of his time," it takes his wife, Aliza, to get him off the phone 10 minutes later. More reporters are waiting outside, and he seems taken aback at the stack of weekend newspapers on his kitchen table, each with his sad-looking eyes over a thick beard gazing from the first page.
Last Tuesday the 57-year-old mayor of Haifa and former general announced that he was in the race to lead the Labor Party in the next election for prime minister.
Even by the standards of Israel's mercurial politics, in which wild swings are hardly unusual especially in troubled times the reactions have been striking.
A poll by one paper, Maariv, showed that if the party primary were held now, Mr. Mitzna would trounce the incumbent Labor chief, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, by 73 percent to 13 percent.
Palestinian leaders have also made no secret of their interest. Mr. Mitzna is still far behind Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but as Hemi Shalev, a political columnist for Maariv wrote, "He is still the first left-wing candidate in a long time to pose a threat."
If the response was surprising, his decision was not, Mr. Mitzna insisted in an interview. "This is not something I dreamed up in the night," he said. "It took more than a few months to realize that I cannot sit on the fence and wait. I couldn't go on enjoying what I'm doing while the country is in turmoil.
Two weeks ago Mr. Mitzna got off the fence and declared that he was exploring a run. On Tuesday he made the formal plunge with a statement that revived the full gamut of dovish themes that Labor had abandoned in despair after the collapse of Camp David talks and the outbreak of a new and terrible wave of violence almost two years ago.
Mr. Mitzna said he would open talks with the Palestinians without delay, with whatever leadership was in charge. He would evacuate any Jewish settlements left in Palestinian territory. He would give the Palestinians part of Jerusalem. If the Palestinians balked, he would unilaterally decide where the border between Israel and the West Bank would run.
"I was very worried that loss of hope has become the best description of the Israeli people, that I might not be able to change anything," he said. "So I'm happy surprised and happy at the volume of the response."
It is not easy at first to connect the clamor outside with the man sitting in his modest hillside apartment decorated with plastic flowers and a few modern prints.
Nothing even suggests that he is mayor. There are no guards, no ceremony. With his heavy beard, glasses, graying hair and polo shirt, he would easily blend into the Haifa crowd.
But it soon becomes evident that this is a man accustomed to authority. He speaks with a military man's directness, without undue banter or humor, in competent English. He is trim and straight, and wastes no time. He is, in fact, among the most decorated veterans in Israel, a tank commander who was wounded three times in one battle in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, who rose to major general and chief of planning and budget.
His beard dates from 1967, when he and some fellow officers vowed not to shave until peace was reached with the Arabs.
He was touted for chief of staff but did not make it, in part because he was the commander in the West Bank during the first intifada and took the brunt of criticism for Israel's harsh tactics, and in part because of a bold letter he wrote as a brigadier general during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, declaring his lack of confidence in the defense minister of the time Ariel Sharon.
"I know this is something one should not do, unless you believe that you are defending the country," Mr. Mitzna said of his letter. "This is a democracy, and there are limits. If we feel there is a moral issue, that a red line has been crossed, you have to say it."
But Mr. Mitzna has taken heat himself, as commander of the West Bank during the first Palestinian uprising, when many of the Israeli Army's methods, most notably breaking the arms of stone throwers, came under sharp criticism.
Mr. Mitzna does not go into a detailed defense. "First of all it was war, and I was responsible for law and order in the West Bank," he said. "I had to use the measures and authority I had."
On his retirement from the army, Mr. Mitzna was immediately corralled by another general-turned-politician, Yitzhak Rabin, to run for mayor of Haifa, Israel's third-largest city.
In his nine years in that job the city has flourished. Residents acknowledge that if he ran for a third term, he would win hands down with the support of all factions, including Arabs, new immigrants and religious Jews.
"The municipal workers do virtually everything he tells them to," said Avi Kfiri, a political reporter for the weekly Zman Haifa. "He does not have an excess of humor, and is very businesslike and to the point. He does not show emotions. He is a hard worker, arriving at the office by 7 a.m. and working through the evening."
How that experience plays on the national Israeli stage is to be seen. For now, political commentators are agreed that the excitement around Mr. Mitzna is less a reflection of his attributes than of the vacuum in the Labor leadership.
More than one political writer has recalled previous military heroes who exploded onto the political arena only to fade away. But even if Mr. Mitzna's drive fizzles, he has already demonstrated how desperately the Israeli left, what used to be called the "peace camp," yearns for someone to rally its dispirited ranks.
Those already in government all seem tarnished, either by having taken part in the defeated Labor government of Ehud Barak or in Prime Minister Sharon's unyieldingly hawkish coalition. In this gloom, the political commentators wrote, Mr. Mitzna is a new dawn.
"The relatively anonymous Mitzna has been raised onto people's shoulders even before managing to open his mouth, and an entire public is streaming after him," Mr. Shalev wrote in obvious awe. "There is also something scary about this, evidence of the depth of desperation and distress."
Mr. Mitzna insists that his is not some quixotic invocation of a lost dream. "I'm not stupid," he said. "I'm not naοve. I believe we can reach an agreement with the Palestinians. I know it is possible, even after the last two years of events: the terrorism, killings, hatred.
"I know my announcement opened a lot of hearts and minds. The last two years changed people on both sides. They know that both terrorism and military power lead to nothing. It led people in this region to lose everything they had. Israel went back 10 years' development, and the Palestinians are in a miserable situation. I hope this will create on the Palestinian side some movement to resume discussions."
Mr. Mitzna credited Mr. Sharon with "fighting terrorism quite well."
"But without a political horizon," he said, "without some way to discuss, to resume negotiations, to give some hope, without someone to talk to and something to talk about, it will remain violence, terror, counterattack.
"Even if Yasir Arafat disappears, what then? What ideas does this government have to bring to the table?"
It is a long shot. But for now at least, it is music to the left.