Israel’s shrinking Labor picks new face

Amram Mitzna, 57, avowed dove and advocate of negotiations with the Palestinians – even amid surging terror – was picked as next Labor leader on November 19 in what looked more like a journey down memory lane than a hard-headed, future-oriented primary election.
Labor, once considered Israel’s natural ruling party, recruited this new face to stem the flight from its ranks and stand up to Ariel Sharon’s governing Likud in the January 28 election. Mitzna, mayor of Haifa for past nine years, had the right credentials: a former general, born on a kibbutz, he comes fresh to national politics, never having held a seat in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. He threw his hat in the ring against Binyamin Ben Eliezer, leader of only nine months, a bare three months before the November 19 contest.
The new man never made any secret of his dovish views on concessions to Palestinian statehood and announced he would pull the troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip as soon as he took office. This platform suits the party veterans down to the ground.
But Mitzna’s triumph had a price. Most political experts expect Labor to drop ten of their 25 Knesset seats in the coming election. While the new leader’s supporters were crowing, his defeated rival, former defense minister Ben Eliezezer (who netted 38 percent of the vote), went down fighting. He announced he would preserve his support base intact, which is why Mitzna made haste to offer him the number two slot and declare that pulling the party ranks together was his top priority.
Members of the losing side loudly found fault with the primary system for giving a voice to the group they called “the elite” at the expense of the ethnic and social underclass, where Bin Eliezer is strong. They also declared they would fight to prevent Labor from sinking down to the level of Meretz B (Meretz is the dovish party that is diametrically opposed to Likud). The morning after the election, therefore, the two camps began bickering over the method of choosing the next Knesset slate – another primary, or the party convention that meets Thursday, November 21, to decide the issue.
This tug-of-war embodies the extremes of forces, views and constituencies within the Labor camp. The Mitzna candidacy aroused these half-sleeping dogs in the party by its platform and patrons.
Labor’s pro-Oslo peace camp has been popularly discredited by the more than two years of confrontation-by-terror conducted by Yasser Arafat after his summary rejection of the concessions for peace proffered by Labor prime minister Ehud Barak. When Ariel Sharon defeated Barak in 2001, he invited Labor to join his national unity government. This lineup survived until Ben Eliezer led his party’s walkout last month, forcing an early election next January.
The Labor count of eligible members in advance of this week’s primary shocked its leaders by revealing how much it had shrunk: 100,000 paid up members were left to pick the leader (compared with 330,000 Likud followers). Mitzna’s “landslide” therefore amounted to no more than 36,000 votes, compared with 25,000 for Ben Eliezer and 4,000 for the also-ran Haim Ramon.
The Mitzna support comes from the more affluent towns and kibbutzim; Ben Eliezer’s the poor city districts and the moshavim, an underclass where the Likud is far stronger than any Labor activist. Labor’s new leader therefore speaks for a small, nostalgic but articulate minority, many of whom yearn for a past that led to the post-Oslo 1993 business boom for Israelis and Palestinians alike. That boom melted away in the heat of the Palestinian confrontation, along with such Labor luminaries as Yossi Beilin, Shlomo Ben Ami and Ehud Barak and their followings. However, this group still clings to the belief that it is recoverable so long as a state of war is not admitted and Arafat and his Palestinian Authority are not named the enemy.
Some of the more powerful Israeli media go along with this doublethink. This week, two incidents epitomized this tendency. For several hours, an attempt to hijack an El Al airliner with 170 passengers aboard was played down as the work of an unarmed amateur loner – until the end of the day when the Shin Beit confirmed it was an authentic act of terror.
On the same day, a large-scale IDF raid of Gaza strongman Muhamed Dahlan’s headquarters was mostly ignored. debkafile‘s military and intelligence sources term it one of the Israeli army’s most important operations in the two years of fighting Palestinian terrorists. Not only did it yield a major haul of weapons, including rockets and launchers, maintained in this central supply depot for all the Palestinian terror groups, but also Dahlan’s files, computers and documents. This archive records the relationships maintained by Arafat and Palestinian Authority leaders with international terrorist organizations. Israeli soldiers were ordered to capture this prize by the new defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, and chief of staff Moshe Yaalon to meet urgent intelligence needs – not only in Israel but by certain bodies in Washington too.
Some of the findings draw a clear line between the running Palestinian war in the Gaza Strip, the Hebron ambush last Friday night, November 15, which cost 12 Israeli lives, and US war preparations against Iraq.
This voluntary blindness to the existence of a full-scale Palestinian war assumed by a powerful section of Labor explains why Dahlan’s headquarters were not raided for the two years that Labor remained in government and in control of the defense ministry. As early as the beginning of 2001, debkafile revealed the daily interchanges between the Palestinians, the Hizballah and Iran, running through Dahlan’s command post.
This blindness persists. Beilin and a group of prominent business figures have never given up hope of a revival in their fortunes. Although careful to stay in the wings, they held Mitzna’s hand in his run for the top spot, hoping he will be the centerpiece of a broad dovish camp to be assembled by mergers and understanding with other like-minded parliamentary groupings, chiefly Meretz (10 Knesset seats), and passive support from Arab lists (which together have ten seats in the Knesset).
This new bloc would face up to the apparently unbeatable lead Sharon enjoys in all the opinion polls and save Labor from dropping to the bottom of the political bucket.
The flip side of this proposition is that the typical Mitzna proponent might have fitted into the Israeli of yesterday but is the antithesis of today’s mainstream Israeli voter, who blames the Oslo regime for his manifold troubles. A Labor party leaning too far to the left will be pushed over at the polls. Mitzna may be aware of his limits. One observer noted: “So far, he has not mentioned Arafat once. He won’t make the mistake of referring to him in the eight-week general election race.”
Despite his favorable showing, Sharon will also need to jump through a political hoop or two to crush the challenge posed him by the irrepressible new foreign minister, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, at the Likud caucus in eight days time. Netanyahu pops up with statements at every turn to press his candidacy. He seized on Mitzna’s election to inform voters that no-one but himself was willing to fight a Palestinian state tooth and nail, while the other two, Sharon and Mitzna, favored its creation.
None of the candidates and hopefuls has yet had a word to say about cures for galloping unemployment, the economic erosion of the middle class, the thousands of businesses that fold each week, the rising cost of living and the general air of stagnation bequeathed by an almost daily regime of Palestinian terror.

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