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Three Men of Labor

Ramon staying in race, Labor leadership primary is up for grabs.

by Leslie Susser

November 14, 2002 | 7:00 pm

A little over a week before the Labor Party's Nov. 19 primary elections, Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna was well-ahead in the three-way race for party leadership. Unfortunately for Mitzna, if a week is a long time in politics, in Israeli politics it's an eon.

Indeed, the Mitzna camp was eagerly awaiting a Monday press conference where legislator Haim Ramon was expected to announce that he was withdrawing from the race. That would have all but sealed Mitzna's victory over incumbent Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Yet, Ramon surprised everyone by announcing he would fight on until the bitter end. Pulling out now, pundits explained, would probably have spelled the end of Ramon's political career. Ramon's perseverance means that both Mitzna and Ben-Eliezer may fail to get the minimum 40 percent support required to win outright in the first round. That would set up a runoff between the two leading candidates a week later.

Though Mitzna and Ramon are seen as more dovish than Ben-Eliezer, the three stand for many of the same things.

The soft-spoken Mitzna, 57, was born on Kibbutz Dovrat to German immigrant parents and grew up in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Haim. At 15, he entered a prestigious army boarding school in Haifa, a year behind such luminaries as Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who later became the Israeli army chief of staff and a Cabinet minister, and Matan Vilnai, a former deputy chief of staff and Labor Party Cabinet minister who today is one of Mitzna's major supporters.

One of the most noteworthy points of Mitzna's army career was his clash with then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon during the 1982 Lebanon war. Sharon had taken much of the blame after Israel's Lebanese Christian allies massacred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. When Mitzna heard Sharon defending himself by saying that similar things had happened before, he resigned in protest, and retracted it only under urging from Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Mitzna received a medal for exemplary conduct for his coolness under fire in the 1967 Six-Day War: As his tank battalion approached its objective in Gaza, the commander's head was blown off by an Egyptian shell. Mitzna, then just 22, covered the body with a map of the Sinai peninsula and conducted the battle himself. He received another medal for bravery in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

When the first Palestinian intifada erupted in December 1987, Mitzna -- by now a major general -- was in the hot seat as head of Central Command, responsible for the West Bank. His decision two years later to take a temporary leave from the army to study at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government was seen by then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin as tantamount to defection in the midst of battle. Within a year of leaving the army in 1993, Mitzna was elected mayor of Haifa, Israel's third largest city. He presents his tenure in Haifa as a model for the country as a whole: During that time the city has absorbed 70,000 new immigrants, its 350,000 Jewish and 70,000 Arab residents live in relative harmony, and, despite the national economic slowdown, its development has been unprecedented.

Much of Mitzna's attraction for Labor voters stems from his quiet personality and his professed dedication to a new, cleaner style of politics.

Yet, on the key political and socioeconomic issues facing Israel, all three candidates have similar positions: A readiness to talk with the Palestinians and, if that proves impossible, to withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank to more defensible lines; on the economy, less spending on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and more on retirees, students and poor development towns.

There are nuanced differences in their approaches to the Palestinians, however. Mitzna would be willing to negotiate with any Palestinian leader, including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat; Ben-Eliezer was one of the first Labor politicians to say that Arafat had exhausted his role as Palestinian leader and should be bypassed in favor of more serious interlocutors; and Ramon doesn't believe any Palestinian leader, even a new one, would be willing right now to make peace with Israel.

Mitzna's most obvious weak point is his inexperience in national politics, which both Ben-Eliezer and Ramon have been remorselessly targeting. Ben-Eliezer snaps that inexperience was former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's undoing, and that Mitzna doesn't have anything like Barak's brain, only his political inexperience. Ramon calls the idea of Mitzna as national savior an illusion.

Ben-Eliezer, 66, a blunt, Falstaffian character, was born into a family of well-to-do merchants in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. At age 13, he was spirited to Israel through Iran and taken to the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair's Kibbutz Merhavia. Three years later, when Ben-Eliezer's family arrived penniless, he moved with them to a transit camp near Netanya. Young Ben-Eliezer and his father worked as laborers in nearby factories.

"Everything I have achieved, I have achieved on my own," Ben-Eliezer said proudly. "I am a totally self-made man." Drafted into the army in 1954, Ben-Eliezer rose though the ranks to become commander of an elite commando unit, military governor and coordinator of government activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and commander in southern Lebanon.

Because of Ben-Eliezer's experience with the Palestinians and his fluency in Arabic, Rabin sent him on a secret mission to Tunis in 1993 to test whether Arafat was ready for reconciliation with Israel. Ben-Eliezer came back saying that he was.

Ben-Eliezer started his political career in the early 1980s in the ethnic Sephardi Tami Party, soon moving to his friend Ezer Weizman's centrist Yahad, and only joining Labor with Weizman in the mid-1980s. By 1992 Ben-Eliezer was in charge of Labor's membership drive, which he used to build a formidable power base. Last year he defeated Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg for the party leadership.

His opponents charge that as defense minister in Sharon's unity government, Ben-Eliezer merely carried out the prime minister's policies and never tried to present an alternative Labor Party peace plan.

"Sharon was the chef, and Ben-Eliezer merely the cook's helper," Ramon said.

Ramon, 52, by far the most forceful orator of the three, was born into a poor Eastern European family in Jaffa and entered politics in the Labor party's youth wing before qualifying as a lawyer.

A Knesset member at age 33, Ramon was soon identified as one the party's young stars. A group of eight young Knesset members, including Burg and Yossi Beilin, coalesced around the charismatic Ramon, who was marked as the heir apparent to Labor's leadership after the Rabin-Peres era.

But Ramon made a series of bold political moves that cost him dearly in the party. He formed a list of his own to win control of the Histadrut Trade Union from Labor, and proceeded to sell off the bloated federation's assets. Labor stalwarts accused Ramon of destroying one of the party's most important power bases.

As health minister, Ramon also drafted an unpopular health bill and, in 1996, ineptly ran Shimon Peres' losing prime ministerial campaign against Benjamin Netanyahu. His ensuing unpopularity caused Ramon to pass up a run for the Labor leadership against Ehud Barak in 1997, and in the 2001 race between Burg and Ben-Eliezer, Ramon was criticized for failing to support his friend, Burg.

Ramon was persuaded to run this time to stop Ben-Eliezer. Now, by staying in the race and not transferring his allegiance to Mitzna -- as most of his supporters have advised him to do -- Ramon could, ironically, save Ben-Eliezer's skin.

As the incumbent, Ben-Eliezer controls the party machine, which is worth a few percentage points in bringing out the vote on election day. With Ramon still in the race and taking votes from Mitzna, that might just be enough to prevent the Haifa mayor from winning.

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