At times of crisis, Israelis reach for a general. Public anxiety brought Moshe Dayan to the Defense Ministry on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, Yitzhak Rabin to the premiership after the traumatic near-defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the aging Ariel Sharon to power in the midst of the intifada in 2001.
Now, as drive-by shootings follow suicide bombings and Sharon's national unity coalition is still groping for an answer, they are turning to another ex-army man, Amram Mitzna, the dovish mayor of Haifa, who last week declared his candidacy for the Labor leadership primary scheduled for November.
The response, even before he formally tossed his hat in the ring, has been immediate and stunning. The latest polls put him way ahead of his rivals, the incumbent Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and former Interior Minister Haim Ramon.
It is not merely Mitzna's novelty that appeals to a left seeking to reconcile its commitment to a two-state solution with the grim daily reality of Palestinian terror. He is tough on security, but still looking for the kind of pragmatic deal Ehud Barak failed to sell to Yasser Arafat at Camp David two summers ago. He has talked about ceding 90 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian rule.
In an interview with this reporter, Mitzna insisted on confronting Israelis with the truth, as he sees it. "The situation today has brought fear and terror to everybody's doorstep," he said. "I hope people understand that to change it, we must take very painful steps. There is no way to solve the problem by using military power."
What, then, would he offer? "First, I want to reopen negotiations with the Palestinians without conditions. If that doesn't work, I would go to unilateral withdrawal and build a fence between us and them, on the West Bank and around Jerusalem. The line will be determined by Israel's security interest."
Where would that leave the Jewish settlements? "On the West Bank, no Jewish settlements would remain east of the line. That will make it easier to defend Israel proper. I'm talking about evacuating 50 to 100 settlements. In Gaza, I would withdraw completely behind the existing fence. That means evacuating all 16 settlements."
Did he think he could sell that to the Israeli public? "Polls show that more than 60 percent of Israelis understand that we will have to withdraw from most of the West Bank and Gaza. Withdrawal would bring greater security and a chance to rebuild our economy. We would continue to fight terrorism, and protect ourselves from a better position."
What about Jerusalem, one of the key issues on which Barak's effort broke down? "I am open to special arrangements in Jerusalem," Mitzna said. "Jewish neighborhoods could come under Israeli control, Arab neighborhoods, under Palestinian control. The Old City could be under some kind of international authority, with Muslim holy places under Palestinian responsibility and Jewish holy places under Israeli responsibility."
Mitzna took care to skirt the issue of sovereignty in the disputed city. But, again, did he think the Israeli public would buy his solution? "I know it's very difficult," he admitted, "but at Camp David it was brought to the attention of the Israeli people, and they started to think about it. We will try to persuade them that we cannot go on like this. The current situation is ruining Israeli society."
Mitzna's Labor Zionist pedigree is impeccable. He was born in 1945 on Kibbutz Dovrat and studied at an elite military boarding school. He served in four of Israel's wars, winning the Medal of Honor and the chief of staff's commendation. He began growing his trademark black (now salt and pepper) beard after being wounded in the 1967 war.
As commander of the IDF staff college during the 1982 Lebanon war, he threatened to resign after accusing then Defense Minister Sharon of ignoring government decisions and trying to provoke Syria into combat. After tours as chief of central command (in the first intifada) and head of operations in the general staff, he retired and entered politics as mayor of "red Haifa," the last of the historic Labor strongholds. He is married with two sons and one daughter, plus a recently born grandson.
Within days of floating his candidacy, Mitzna surged into the lead, among both Labor members and voters in general, as the choice to head his party.
Asked by the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot last weekend who should lead the Labor Party, 49 percent of all voters said Mitzna. Only 26 percent opted for Ben-Eliezer and a paltry 12 percent for Ramon. The Jerusalem weekly Yerushalayim polled Labor members. Mitzna won hands down, 41 percent to Ben-Eliezer's 30 and Ramon's 16.
At the same time, Sharon's campaign promise of "peace with security" is ringing increasingly hollow. The Yediot survey found 57 percent feeling they could rely on him (a drop of 9 percent in the past month), and 63 percent seeing him as a credible prime minister (8 percent down). More significantly, 55 percent said Sharon had no diplomatic plan, while 60 percent were convinced that he and his government did not know how to eliminate terror.
Mitzna, however, still has to persuade thousands of swing voters that he is neither an impulsive Barak clone nor another nice-guy ex-general, like former Tourism Minister Amnon Shahak, who lacked the killer instinct to thrive in the raucous marketplace of Israeli politics.