Israeli Elections 2003: Does the Election of a New Labor Leader to the Israel Knesset Herald Signs of Change or Just More of the Same? (Current Affairs)

By Joffe, Lawrence | The Middle East, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Israeli Elections 2003: Does the Election of a New Labor Leader to the Israel Knesset Herald Signs of Change or Just More of the Same? (Current Affairs)


Joffe, Lawrence, The Middle East


Isn't it extraordinary how much damage a little budgetary turbulence caused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon? Not only did it collapse his unity government, force early elections, necessitate a cabinet reshuffle, and hasten the appointment of a determined foe, Amram Mitzna, as Labor Party leader. It also brought his arch rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, within striking distance of his throne.

At first glance, this spelt disaster for Sharon. Yet somehow the old campaigner prevailed. On 28 November he beat Netanyahu in party primaries by a margin of 56% to 40%. Opinion polls suggest Sharon's Likud will triumph in general elections scheduled for 28 January 2003.

In early October, having poured cold water on the Quartet's "road-map for peace", and defied calls to lift the crippling reoccupation of Palestinian cities, Sharon was about to pass an austerity budget that might restore Israel's damaged international credit rating.

Suddenly, someone revealed that $149 million was being secretly shunted to the settlements. Defence Minister and Labor leader, Binyamin `Fuad' Ben-Eliezer, decided to make a stand. Why are settlers benefiting, he demanded, when one in five Israelis lives below the poverty line and development towns cry out for investment?

In fact, the amount was comparatively paltry. Observed Ami Isseroff of the Mideast Web for Coexistence: "Much larger sums, perhaps as much as $1bn a year, are devoted to special subsidies, tax discounts and other perks for settlers, as well as defence of settlements that have no strategic value." Nonetheless Ben-Eliezer resigned and on 30 October Labor left the government. Avigdor Lieberman, a Netanyahu protege who leads seven extreme right-wing opposition Knesset members (MKs), spurned Sharon's plea to save his minority administration, by making unreasonable demands.

The Prime Minister survived two votes of no confidence, and replaced the outgoing Defence Minister Ben-Eliezer with former military Chief of Staff, Sha'ul Mofaz. Next he appointed his chief Likud foe, former Prime Minister Binyamin `Bibi' Netanyahu, as Foreign Minister to replace the outgoing Shimon Peres. But his government remained fragile, so he called for early elections on 28 January. Finally, Sharon brought forward the Likud leadership primaries to 28 November, giving Bibi little time to galvanise his campaign. Within hours of joining the cabinet Bibi lambasted Sharon's failures. Clearly, gratitude is not his strong suit.

Labor, meanwhile, had its own leadership primaries to fight, on 19 November. Ben-Eliezer enjoyed barely a fortnight as opposition leader before he was toppled from power. The winner was Amram Mitzna, 57, a former general and recently mayor of Israel's third largest city, the port of Haifa. He polled 54% of the vote, to 37% for Ben-Eliezer and 8% for Haim Ramon. For months Labor's rank-and-file had implored Ben-Eliezer to pull Labor out of government. Yet when he eventually did so, it resulted in his calamitous defeat. According to Yoel Marcus of the liberal Ha'aretz daily, Ben-Eliezer had only himself to blame. "During his 20 months as defence minister he had a fabulous opportunity to steer Sharon toward peace. Instead, he turned Labor into a faceless blob by lending a hand to Sharon's bullying policies."

So who is Amram Mitzna, the man Laborites have embraced as their knight in shining armour? Born to Jewish immigrants from Germany, bespectacled and grey-bearded, he first became Haifa's mayor in 1993. Since then he has slashed its budget deficit and promoted urban projects with the aid of an unlikely coalition of Laborites, Likudniks, religious Jews, Arabs, Communists and ex-army comrades.

Facing Sharon represents deja vu for Mitzna. In 1982 he temporarily resigned his military commission over Sabra and Shatila, citing Sharon's disregard for lives lost. In 1989 he angered Sharon again by insisting that politicians, not soldiers, address the Intifada's causes.

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