Mayor of Haifa Picked to Lead Labor; Party Set to Take a 'Left-Wing turn'.(WORLD)

Article excerpt

Byline: Joshua Mitnick, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

TEL AVIV - Israel's Labor Party yesterday embraced Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, a dovish outsider, as its new leader in advance of national elections slated for Jan. 28.

In electing Mr. Mitzna over incumbent Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the former defense minister, Labor voters sought to end 20 months of ideological disarray.

Mr. Mitzna, 57, whom exit polls showed beating Mr. Ben-Eliezer by a double-digit margin, had shored up his standing among the party faithful on the eve of yesterday's election with an unprecedented promise to dismantle Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Ben-Eliezer was unable to recover from deep-seated misgivings about his insistence on remaining part of a national unity government with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hawkish Likud party.

"The Labor Party is setting out on a new path and presents a real alternative to the Israeli public," Mr. Mitzna said.

"The majority of the Israeli public wants a different leadership," said Knesset member Haim Ramon, who led a noisy rebellion against Mr. Ben-Eliezer in August and placed a distant third in yesterday's voting.

An exit poll of 1,000 Labor voters gave Mr. Mitzna 57 percent, compared with 35 percent for Mr. Ben-Eliezer and 8 percent for Mr. Ramon.

Mr. Mitzna's big win helps the party avoid a runoff, which would have been necessary if neither of the leading candidates had surpassed 40 percent.

Under Mr. Mitzna, a former general, Labor begins the general election campaign as a distant underdog to Mr. Sharon's Likud party.

Mr. Mitzna's open acceptance of a unilateral withdrawal from Palestinian territories and his call for negotiations with the Palestinian leadership provides Likud a convenient punching bag before a public that has shifted rightward after two years of daily bloodshed with the Palestinians. …