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Jewish Journal

Labor Sinks to New Low as Mitzna Quits

by Leslie Susser

May 8, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Amram Mitzna, a dovish ex-general who led the once-dominant Israeli Labor Party to its worst election defeat three months ago, announces his resignation in Tel Aviv. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

Amram Mitzna, a dovish ex-general who led the once-dominant Israeli Labor Party to its worst election defeat three months ago, announces his resignation in Tel Aviv. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

Amram Mitzna's decision to abdicate the leadership of the Labor Party after just months on the job seems to signal the lowest ebb for a party that dominated Israeli life for decades. But it might just herald a dramatic realignment of Israel's political map.

After months of rebellion by party officials, who never grew accustomed to his leadership style, Mitzna threw the Israeli political establishment into turmoil by announcing his resignation May 4. The announcement opened what could be yet another a bitter battle for the leadership of Labor, which has been rudderless since party leader Ehud Barak retired after losing the premiership to Ariel Sharon in February 2001.

It also raised the possibility that centrist Labor politicians, who chafed at Mitzna's decision not to join a national unity government after Sharon was reelected by a landslide in January, might take the party back into Sharon's embrace.

If that happens, the more dovish wings of the party could split, leaving Labor for an alliance that former Labor legislator Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, head of the left-wing Meretz Party, have been talking about building for months. Beilin even said Mitzna could lead the alliance.

Beilin pointed out that if just six other Labor members of Knesset joined Mitzna, the leftist group would have 13 Knesset members to Labor's 12 and would constitute the largest opposition faction in the Knesset. Ironically, in that case, Mitzna no longer would be Labor's leader, but he would still be leader of the opposition.

Such a move could lead to a major realignment of political forces in Israel -- and it is quite conceivable if the new Labor leadership decides to join Sharon's government. First, though, Labor will have some hard choices to make about its leadership and direction.

Mitzna was hailed as a potential savior when at age 57, he burst onto the national political stage eight months ago after serving as mayor of Haifa for a decade. The Palestinian intifada was at its height and Labor, which had been the junior partner in Sharon's unity government until leaving on a budgetary pretext, was struggling.

Mitzna promised to discard Sharon's policies, immediately sit down with any Palestinian leaders and, if all else failed, unilaterally withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip within a year.

Many Israelis hoped that Mitzna, soft-spoken and highly principled, would give Labor a new sense of purpose and help the country address its most pressing problems. However, his resignation dashed those hopes and left the party worse off than at any time in its long and checkered history.

Some pundits are predicting the demise of the once-dominant, 70-year-old party. Others foresee a split in the ranks. Even if none of that happens, Labor, which has fallen to just 19 seats in the 120-member Knesset, faces a long and difficult process of rehabilitation.

The circumstances and manner of Mitzna's resignation made an already tough situation infinitely worse. In his resignation speech, he claimed leading figures in the party had never accepted his leadership, hadn't given him a moment's grace and had done all they could to undermine him.

"I am ashamed of the fact that since my election, before and after the elections to the Knesset, many in the party leadership focused on me and the struggle against me rather than on the struggle for peace and justice," he declared.

Mitzna said he had been confronted by a group of manipulative Machiavellians, who put personal ambition above the general good.

"I regret this," he said. "But I do not regret the fact that I am cut from different cloth."

Although he didn't mention names, Mitzna's barbs were aimed, first and foremost, at the man he replaced as party leader, former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Mitzna's main problem as leader was that -- although he had been elected by an overwhelming majority of the party membership -- Ben-Eliezer's people still controlled Labor's decision-making institutions. Time and again, Ben-Eliezer used this to embarrass and humiliate the politically inexperienced Mitzna.

Just two weeks after Sharon's new government was sworn in in late February and Mitzna had become opposition leader, Ben-Eliezer issued a public challenge: He insisted that a peace plan he had drafted, which was different from Mitzna's, be adopted as party policy.

Only 126 of the 2,400 Central Committee members turned up for the debate, and though Mitzna pleaded that no vote be taken, Ben-Eliezer was adamant. By a vote of 78-46, with two abstentions, the Ben-Eliezer plan became Labor Party policy, a major slap in the face to the new party leader. The final straw came two and half months later, when Mitzna, after a string of similar defeats, failed to get his way on candidates for the Haifa municipal election in June.

At his news conference, Mitzna said he was prepared to fight for his dovish views, but not to fight daily to prove his legitimacy as party leader.

The press was deeply divided over Mitzna's decision to resign. Some argued that he was too good for his political colleagues; others said that he had feet of clay.

"Maybe Mitzna failed. Maybe he is not the stuff of which leaders are made," Yediot Achronot's Sima Kadmon wrote. "True, he has little political savvy. And you would need more than the fingers of two hands to count his mistakes. But even if all that is true, only a pathetic party like Labor could reject a man of such quality."

But Doron Rosenblum of Ha'aretz argued that "like others on the Israeli left," Mitzna was too finicky and fragile.

"He is touchy, spoiled and refined," Rosenblum wrote. "A weakling and a crybaby. Suited only to aesthetically pleasing situations. He deserves better. And if not he walks out."

It's difficult to gauge how much Mitzna's departure will cost Labor in terms of public support. A weekend public opinion poll, however, gives some indication: 60 percent of the those polled thought Mitzna most suited to lead Labor, followed by Ben-Eliezer with a mere 10 percent.

Labor voters liked Mitzna's promise of cleaner politics, and his unmitigated condemnation of his party peers will repel many potential supporters. To steady the ship, most Labor leaders are now talking about appointing a temporary party leader, rather than going straight into another strength-sapping leadership race.

The lone candidate for interim leader is veteran Shimon Peres, whose task would be to put things back on an even keel and smooth the way for a leadership race in about a year's time. There also is talk of a "collective leadership" working in unison around Peres. Labor's secretary-general, Ophir Pines, said sadly that maybe now, after the shock of Mitzna's resignation, the others "will get their act together."

Many names are being bandied about as prospective candidates to eventually take over as party leader, among them former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, former ministers Matan Vilnai and Ben-Eliezer and perhaps even Barak. A lot will depend on when the race takes place and whether Peres is installed first as temporary leader.

The key question is whether Sharon will be able to attract the new, temporary leadership to join his coalition. Peres, Ben-Eliezer and Barak are known to be in favor.

Mitzna, too, had said recently that he would consider joining Sharon's government if it accepted the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for an end to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, after being rebuffed by Mitzna for months, Sharon was in no hurry to embrace him when Mitzna's hold on Labor clearly was becoming precarious.

If Mitzna's successors do lead Labor back into government -- and if Mitzna in turn leads a sizable contingent out of Labor -- the consequences for the Israeli political spectrum could be far-reaching.

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