- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

TEL AVIV Israel's Labor Party yesterday embraced Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, a dovish outsider, as its new leader in advance of national elections slated for Jan. 28.
In electing Mr. Mitzna over incumbent Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the former defense minister, Labor voters sought to end 20 months of ideological disarray.
Mr. Mitzna, 57, whom exit polls showed beating Mr. Ben-Eliezer by a double-digit margin, had shored up his standing among the party faithful on the eve of yesterday's election with an unprecedented promise to dismantle Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Mr. Ben-Eliezer was unable to recover from deep-seated misgivings about his insistence on remaining part of a national unity government with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hawkish Likud party.
"The Labor Party is setting out on a new path and presents a real alternative to the Israeli public," Mr. Mitzna said.
"The majority of the Israeli public wants a different leadership," said Knesset member Haim Ramon, who led a noisy rebellion against Mr. Ben-Eliezer in August and placed a distant third in yesterday's voting.
An exit poll of 1,000 Labor voters gave Mr. Mitzna 57 percent, compared with 35 percent for Mr. Ben-Eliezer and 8 percent for Mr. Ramon.
Mr. Mitzna's big win helps the party avoid a runoff, which would have been necessary if neither of the leading candidates had surpassed 40 percent.
Under Mr. Mitzna, a former general, Labor begins the general election campaign as a distant underdog to Mr. Sharon's Likud party.
Mr. Mitzna's open acceptance of a unilateral withdrawal from Palestinian territories and his call for negotiations with the Palestinian leadership provides Likud a convenient punching bag before a public that has shifted rightward after two years of daily bloodshed with the Palestinians.
"It's a good beginning for a party that's going to be small," said Likud Minister Reuven Rivlin, who called the vote a "sharp left-wing turn" for Labor.
"Even [former Foreign Minister Shimon] Peres isn't as far left as Mitzna," he said.
Mr. Ben-Eliezer's campaign argument that his tenure in the Sharon government made him the only candidate who could woo centrist and right-wing voters to Labor fell on deaf ears among the Labor Party members.
"We must take this decision with honor," said a tired-looking Mr. Ben-Eliezer in his concession speech. "The voters have reached a verdict."
Party faithful, hailing from left-wing farming collectives and Israeli Arab villages, blamed Mr. Ben-Eliezer for blurring the party's traditional role as the ideological counterpoint in the Likud while it sat alongside Mr. Sharon.
"Mitzna has restored the party to the path of [former Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin, and now it will be possible to bring out the peace camp," said Yossi Beilin, a left-wing Labor leader who threatened to resign from the party if Mr. Ben-Eliezer won.
Mr. Ben-Eliezer took over the party in February 2001, after Mr. Sharon displaced Labor's Ehud Barak as prime minister in an election triggered by the first few months of the Palestinian uprising.
Mr. Mitzna first came to national prominence as a junior army officer who resigned his post during the 1982 Lebanon war in protest of the invasion devised by Mr. Sharon, then the defense minister.
Mr. Mitzna revoked the resignation and rose to become the general in charge of the West Bank during the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s.


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