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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 13:24 GMT
New Israeli Labour head pledges talks
New Israeli opposition Labour Party leader Amram Mitzna
Mr Mitzna won the leadership race with 54% of the vote
The new leader of the Israeli opposition Labour Party, dovish former general Amram Mitzna, has said his election is proof that Israelis are prepared to start negotiating with the Palestinians once again.

He took 54% of the vote in an election for the Labour Party leadership on Tuesday, defeating two other candidates including the incumbent, former Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

Mr Mitzna, who is mayor of the Israeli city of Haifa but has no previous experience of national politics, said that once Israelis "feel that there is someone to talk to on the other side, they are ready to make a lot of concessions".

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
Mr Arafat said he hoped Mr Mitzna would be a peacemaker
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat welcomed the election of Mr Mitzna, saying he hoped the new Labour leader would "follow in the footsteps of [the late Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin and finish off his work".

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Mitzna declined to say if he was prepared to talk to Mr Arafat, whose support among Palestinians is said to be declining.

"I will talk with the Palestinian leadership that will be able to deliver the goods," he said.

Mr Mitzna, 57, will now lead his party into the 28 January general elections.

But surveys among the Israeli public give Mr Mitzna little chance of defeating Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party.

'Time to try again'

The new Labour leader told the BBC that his party had voted "dramatically for a change".

The Labour Party is embarking on a new path to present the Israeli public a real alternative

New leader Amram Mitzna

"I think Israelis - not just Labour Party members - do feel this is the time to try again, not just by using power but also by negotiation," he said.

"I think Israelis understand now better that there is no way to win such a situation just by using military power," he said.

He has promised to try to reinvigorate the Labour Party in opposition, rather than rejoin a national coalition headed by Likud.

Correspondents say Mr Mitzna's support for a political not military solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict put him in sharp contrast to Mr Ben-Eliezer, his defeated rival.

'Fantastic victory'

With the announcement of the first results, Mr Mitzna hailed a "fantastic victory" and said the party was "embarking on a new path to present the Israeli public a real alternative".

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon is still the favourite in national elections
In the run-up to the vote, Mr Mitzna said that if elected prime minister, he would reverse Mr Sharon's course by withdrawing unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and negotiating with any Palestinian leadership.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz said that the election of Mr Mitzna would make it virtually impossible for Mr Sharon to set up another unity government if he is re-elected, the option he has said he prefers.

Mr Mitzna has said he would make evacuation of Jewish settlements a condition of joining a Likud-led government.

Labour's refusal to join a Likud-led government would force Mr Sharon to try to build a right-wing coalition, the paper writes.

The Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, writes that by electing Mr Mitzna, "the most dovish candidate in the race", Labour Party members "apparently condemned their party to four years of watching from the opposition as a Likud-led government decides the nation's future".

The BBC's Barbara Plett
"A new leader, and it's hoped a new beginning"

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20 Nov 02 | Middle East
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