Israel's Labor Party today elected as its leader and candidate for prime minister a former general and political newcomer who pledges swift Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and West Bank and renewed peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Labor's choice, Amram Mitzna, 57, mayor of the coastal city of Haifa, set the stage for a general election Jan. 28 that will present voters with a relatively clear choice: pursuing Israel's military campaign against the two-year-old Palestinian uprising, or returning to a more conciliatory approach that could include reviving the moribund effort to reach a settlement with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
"Many people think this will be the first time in a long time that there will be an ideological debate between the left and the right," said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
Israel's other large political party, Likud, will hold its primary Nov. 28. The contest is between two battle-tested hard-liners: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who recently became foreign minister in Sharon's caretaker government and has sought to portray himself as even tougher than Sharon. Public opinion surveys show that, as of now, Sharon is heavily favored to win the Likud race and has a commanding -- some say insurmountable -- lead to become the next prime minister.
Mitzna crushed Labor's incumbent chairman, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, 54 percent to 37 percent. Ben-Eliezer, who until recently was the defense minister in Sharon's national unity government, conceded defeat late tonight. A third candidate, longtime Labor stalwart Haim Ramon, had 7 percent.
Flanked by Ramon and Ben-Eliezer, Mitzna said in a victory speech at party headquarters in Tel Aviv that under his leadership Labor will be "a party that puts at the top of its agenda security, peace and a willingness to compromise with our neighbors."
But his promise was made against a backdrop of continuing violence, with Israeli military forces killing seven Palestinians tonight. Two were accused gunmen shot outside the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the southern Gaza Strip. Five more were killed in the West Bank city of Tulkarm, including Tareq Zaghal, 24, a member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a radical offshoot of Arafat's Fatah movement. An Israeli military spokeswoman said Zaghal was involved in a Jan. 17 attack that killed six Israelis and wounded 35.
Voters in Israel's general election will cast ballots for a party, not a person. The leader of the party that gets the most votes will form a government, seek to create a coalition with a majority in parliament and become the prime minister. With his election by fellow Labor Party members today, Mitzna became Labor's candidate.
Israel's abrupt and shortened election season began when Ben-Eliezer led Labor out of Sharon's national unity government three weeks ago, ultimately causing its collapse.
At the time, Ben-Eliezer said he was bolting because of Sharon's refusal to cut the budget for Jewish settlements and redirect the funds to the poor and elderly. But political analysts and many Labor members saw the move as a bid by Ben-Eliezer to shore up support with Labor's left wing -- which was uncomfortable with his role in Sharon's cabinet -- in advance of today's party election.
Instead, the vote was a stinging repudiation of Ben-Eliezer's 11 months as head of Labor and the 19 months during which he served as Sharon's defense minister and another Labor stalwart, Shimon Peres, served as Sharon's foreign minister.
Labor, which according to its tradition is socially liberal and more inclined than Likud to negotiations with the Palestinians, was also the largest member in Sharon's parliamentary coalition. While Sharon's unity government was highly popular with the public, some Labor members grew angry at their party's partnership with Sharon and -- by extension -- its participation in Israel's military attacks on Palestinians and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Many members had been arguing for months that Labor should quit the government and offer a true alternative as an opposition party. The selection of Mitzna as chairman sets the party on that course. Mitzna has said he favors a return to peace talks with leaders of the Palestinians' choosing, including Arafat. If they could not agree on a comprehensive peace plan, Mitzna has said, he would unilaterally draw a border with the West Bank, evacuate Jewish settlements on the Palestinian side and build a fence to separate the peoples.
In an interview today with the daily newspaper Haaretz, he said that if he is elected prime minister, one of his government's first acts would be to evacuate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, which have about 6,500 closely guarded residents among a population of one million Palestinians. And he vowed to withdraw the Israeli military from most of the West Bank by the end of his first year in office.
Mitzna "says clear things and represents a clear ideological position vis-a-vis peace, and in favor of negotiations with the Palestinians," Labor member Jannet Aviad, 60, said after casting her ballot. "This is a totally different dynamic from what Sharon is doing on the ground. . . . The current government eternalizes the occupation."
Mitzna, who has won accolades for lowering tensions between Arabs and Jews in Haifa, also appeared to benefit from being a newcomer to national politics. A former tank commander, he burst onto the national scene in mid-April to challenge Ben-Eliezer. Although Ben-Eliezer criticized his inexperience, Mitzna appealed to Labor's rank and file by claiming loyalty to the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated Labor leader and prime minister who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in crafting the 1993 Oslo peace accords.
While Mitzna represents a clear victory for the party's left wing, political analysts said, it is not clear how broadly he will appeal to the Israeli electorate at large. Opinion surveys show that it has swung sharply to the right in the last two years of conflict with the Palestinians, during which almost 700 Israelis and more than 1,900 Palestinians have been killed.
While many analysts said that staking out a position in direct opposition to Likud will help the party return to its roots and redefine itself, others said it is a risky gambit. The party has alienated Arab, Russian and religious voters who make up a large part of the electorate, and it has an increasingly narrow base -- principally aging and affluent, middle- and upper-middle class Israelis.
"The dovish wing took over, and it's disastrous for Labor," said Efraim Inbar, a professor at Bar-Ilan University. He said the party is "fully discredited" by its embrace of what he termed "the failed" Oslo accords.
With polls showing Labor trailing badly in the January general election campaign, the key question for many voters -- and one that Mitzna has avoided answering directly -- is whether the party would join Likud again in a national unity government. Sharon has suggested that if he wins, he might seek a partnership with Labor's new leadership, and some analysts have indicated that because of his military background, Mitzna might be tempted by an offer to be defense minister, just as Ben-Eliezer was.