Israel's Old Left Finds a New Voice ; Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna Declared His Labor Party Candidacy for Israeli Prime Minister This Month

By Lynfield, Ben | The Christian Science Monitor, August 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

Israel's Old Left Finds a New Voice ; Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna Declared His Labor Party Candidacy for Israeli Prime Minister This Month


Lynfield, Ben, The Christian Science Monitor


With his reserved manner, soporific speaking style, and lack of experience in national affairs, Amram Mitzna seems like an unlikely person to charge up Israeli politics.

But analysts say the rapid rise of the tall, angular mayor of Haifa to the status of prime ministerial hopeful stems largely from the content of his positions: He has staked out the only clear alternative to the hard-line policies of the government since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's election a year and a half ago.

"It is obvious that by force alone, nothing can be solved," Mr. Mitzna told a group of middle-aged and elderly left-wingers in Tel Aviv last Friday.

Mitzna, a retired general, wears a salt-and-pepper beard that dates back to the eve of the 1967 war, when, he says, he and army buddies resolved not to shave until there was peace. With the Palestinian uprising about to enter its third year, there seems scant prospect it will come off any time soon.

"Over the last year, hundreds of citizens and soldiers were killed in Israel despite the fact that we have been using against the terror all of our strength, with the best army commanders, and led by a man who termed himself 'Mr. Security,' " he said.

Mitzna declined to take questions from the press, instead fielding softballs from the sympathetic group that gathers every Friday to commemorate assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his patron in the army and later in politics. He said that Rabin's decision to sign the Oslo agreement was "not a mistake, it was right to try to end the cycle of hostility. But the process was derailed after Yitzhak's murder."

As he shook hands with his listeners afterwards, an accordion was playing the Hebrew song "See How Good It Will be Next Year."

Hope for the doves?

Mitzna's candidacy, declared two weeks ago, offers a test of whether the dovish agenda can be revived in today's Israel, where the prevailing view, articulated repeatedly by the government, is that there is no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side.

Mitzna says that if elected, he would immediately open talks with the Palestinian Authority, which the government has shunned on the grounds that this would reward terrorism and that no diplomacy is possible while Yasser Arafat remains the Palestinian leader.

"I have no blind faith in the Palestinians, but let us speak to one another honestly, let us look at each other in the eyes, let us give it one more chance, a real chance," he says. If negotiations fail, he says, Israel will establish an eastern security border unilaterally, withdrawing from most of the West Bank.

The mayor is unabashedly clear that under an agreement or in the event of a unilateral delineation of Israel's eastern border, the 35- year-old Jewish settlement enterprise in the Occupied Territories will have to come to an end. "The friction with the Palestinians is a weight dragging us into the abyss," he says. "We must break free of it. We must tell the 200,000 people who settled in the territories as part of a national mission that the mission today is to return home."

'A new face'

Mitzna attended a military academy for high school and was drafted into the army in 1963. There he spent three decades and fought in three wars, in addition to being the general in charge of the West Bank at the outbreak of the first intifada, when he was known among Palestinians for tough tactics including house demolitions and expulsions. Mitzna says that the post led him to the conclusion that force alone would not solve the conflict and that occupying Palestinian land was harming Israel's values. …

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