Waging war, seeking peace

SUN JOURNAL

Candidate: A retired Israeli general says he'd return the Labor Party to its core principles.

September 19, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEL AVIV, Israel - Amram Mitzna, a retired Israeli general and candidate to lead the left-of-center Labor Party, stands calmly in the small crowd in Rabin Square, talking with supporters and fending off taunts as easily as if he were chatting about the weather.

He keeps his voice steady, smiles when someone calls him a traitor and, just in case someone in the back can't hear, repeats questions that assail his integrity.

After nine years as mayor of Haifa, Mitzna is seeking to unseat Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer as head of Labor in party elections scheduled for November, and then to challenge the Likud government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mitzna calls Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip "gangrene" for Israeli society, says he would evacuate many of them, pledges to give most of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians and says that serious peace talks should begin immediately with the Palestinian Authority, even if Yasser Arafat remains in charge.

Even by the standards of Israel's freewheeling politics, Mitzna's unexpected entry into party affairs has shaken the establishment. He has an early lead over Ben-Eliezer in surveys of Labor Party voters.

One of Israel's most decorated war veterans, Mitzna proposes to blend ideas from a far left that wants only to talk and a far right that wants only to fight. He says he would wage war and negotiate at the same time, that he could make painful concessions to the Palestinians and still be considered a hard-fighting patriot.

"You have to fight terror as though there is no one to talk to and continue talking as if there is no terror," he tells his audience. "Both sides feel there is no one to talk to and nothing to talk about. Therefore, we have to replace the leadership on both sides."

The message seems to resonate among people searching for new leadership. Mitzna proposes to recast the core beliefs that the Labor Party tossed aside to form an uneasy coalition with Sharon's right-wing Likud.

"We are in a stressful situation," says Meir Nitzan, mayor of Rishon Letzion and a friend of Mitzna's for 33 years, "and people are looking for a miracle, an angel to help them escape."

Mitzna enjoys commanding leads in polls of Labor Party voters, but his popularity has been slipping. Last month, the newspaper Ma'ariv found Mitzna leading Ben-Eliezer 73 percent to 13 percent. On Friday, Mitzna led 56 percent to 32 percent.

And Mitzna's candidacy might not easily translate into votes. Fewer than 100 people attended his rally in Tel Aviv. An appearance at the end of last month at kibbutz Yakum drew 200 people for 1,000 seats. A second rally there, on Sept. 12, filled every seat.

Many Labor Party supporters are uncertain whether Mitzna is the candidate they want. Dina Feller helped elect Ehud Barak prime minister in 1999 but has second thoughts about the results.

"The night Barak was elected we danced in the streets," Feller says at the rally here. "Then everything exploded. How can you promise us the same thing won't happen with you?"

"I can't promise a thing," Mitzna says.

Mitzna, born on a kibbutz in 1945, became well known during his three decades in the army. He first gained public attention during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, after his commanding officer was shot and killed in the seat next to him in a jeep. Mitzna, then 22, covered the body with a map and took over. As a tank commander, he was wounded three times in 15 hours.

During the war in Lebanon, in 1982, Mitzna found himself deeply opposed to Sharon, then Israel's defense minister. Sharon was being widely criticized for doing nothing as allied Christian militias massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. Sharon defended himself by saying that such tactics were nothing new. Mitzna, then a brigadier general, threatened to take a leave of absence until Sharon resigned.

Officials persuaded Mitzna to stay and promoted him to major general. He later became head of Central Command, placing him in charge of Israeli troops in most of the West Bank at the start of the first Palestinian uprising, in December 1987.

Mitzna says that experience helped form the core belief behind his campaign to lead the Labor Party - that force alone will not end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also convinced him that leaders could offer conciliation and compromise even while exerting brute force.

As commander in the West Bank, he criticized the destruction of Palestinian homes by Jewish settlers as an "immoral outrage," but he authorized the razing of 120 Palestinian homes after a settler was shot to death.

Mitzna retired from the army in 1993, after a yearlong furlough at Harvard University. He entered politics that year, winning election as mayor of Haifa, Israel's chief port and home to Arabs and Jews.

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