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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 10:06 GMT
Israeli Labour Party picks new leader
Candidates for Israel's Labour party leadership shake hands before the start of a live TV debate
Labour rivals: Haim Ramon, Ben-Eliezer and Mitzna (l-r)

Israel's centre-left Labour Party has begun voting in a primary election to select a new leader ahead of next January's general election.

It is turning into a bitter battle for the soul of the party and with the issue of how to deal with the Palestinian uprising dominating the political agenda in Israel.

Opinion poll by Maariv newspaper
Amram Mitzna - 56%
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer - 25%
Haim Ramon - 6%
The party's choice is between a hawk, a dove or a moderate.

It is a three-way race between the party's current leader, the former defence minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the dovish mayor of Haifa, Amram Mitzna, and a moderate former cabinet minister, Haim Ramon.

Public opinion in Israel continues to swing further to the right with every new Palestinian attack or suicide bombing.

Whoever wins the race will face an uphill struggle, with an ailing Labour Party trailing far behind Ariel Sharon's Likud Party in the run-up to the election.

Opinion poll by Yediot Ahronot
Amram Mitzna - 50%
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer - 30%
Haim Ramon - 13%
But all the opinion polls suggest that Labour looks set to elect the party's most dovish candidate.

On Monday a poll in the Maariv newspaper showed Amram Mitzna with 56% of the vote, Mr Ben-Eliezer with 25% and Haim Ramon trailing with 6%.

Another paper, Yediot Ahronot, showed Mr Mitzna leading with 50% against 30% for Ben-Eliezer and 13% for Ramon, with 7% expressing no preference.

Past upsets

However, there have been numerous surprise upsets in the past in Israeli politics.

Mr Ben-Eliezer is an experienced party leader with a well-oiled political machine who may prove more effective at getting his supporters to turn out and vote.

Labor's Ehud Barak lost the general election to Ariel Sharon
The sudden fall of Ehud Barak led to an identity crisis in the party
Another factor adding to the unpredictability of the contest is that in Israel there is a long tradition of people signing up to become party members simply to participate in primary elections.

According to political scientist Dr Gideon Rahat from the Hebrew University, only a third of Labour's 120,000 registered rank and file are long-term party members.

The rest have all joined in the past month and many are expected to leave the party once the primary is over.

The winner will need 40% of the vote to be elected in the first round and the results should be known by late Tuesday night.

Shaping the future

The Labour primary is being seen here more in terms of who can provide the most effective opposition and whether Labour will remain an opposition party as opposed to rejoining a national unity government.

This is about the party's long-term stakes, shaping the foundations for the future.

The sudden fall of their last prime minister, Ehud Barak, along with the explosion of violence has led to an identity crisis in the party.

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer
Ben-Eliezer - the most hawkish
In the past it had pinned its hopes on the peace process that led to the 1993 Oslo accords on Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Amram Mitzna has emerged as the leading candidate in the Labour race despite pushing policies which are likely to alienate many Israelis who have abandoned the peace camp and Yasser Arafat as a negotiating partner.

Political scientists here say that Mr Mitzna has the support of Labour's core membership: liberal Jews of European descent, kibbutz members and the elderly Jews with strong socialist roots.

The Labour faithful appear to want to portray the party as a real alternative to Likud should the prospects for peacemaking eventually return.

The three candidates are:

  • Binyamin Ben-Eliezer - a 66-year-old reserve general and the party's current leader.

    He is considered the most hawkish candidate.

    He served as defence minister in Prime Minister Sharon's national unity government but pulled the party out last month over the budget, demanding that state funds for Jewish settlers should go instead to the poor.

    As defence chief he presided over some of Israel's toughest actions to quell the Palestinian uprising, including the re-occupation of much of the West Bank and the siege of Mr Arafat's Palestinian headquarters in Ramallah.

  • Amram Mitzna - a 57-year-old former general who is currently mayor of the northern Israeli city of Haifa.

    Amram Mitzna
    Mitzna - the most dovish

    Inexperienced in national politics, he has built a reputation as a good administrator who has managed to develop a good working relationship with both sides of Haifa's mixed Arab-Jewish population.

    He is considered the most dovish of the candidates, favouring a rapid resumption of peace talks without setting conditions.

    His proposed peace platform includes being prepared to negotiate directly with Yasser Arafat, and removing most of the settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank and Gaza.

    His reputation as a dove goes back to 1982, when as a young brigadier he criticised then defence minister Sharon's handling of the invasion of Lebanon.

    Haim Ramon
    Ramon - a leading moderate

    Later as head of the army's central command during the first Palestinian uprising from 1987 to 1993, Amram Mitzna exchanged tough words with Jewish settlers.

  • Haim Ramon - a former cabinet minister.

    At 52 he is seen as a leading moderate member of the party's young guard.

    He was first elected to parliament in his 30s and is the former head of the Histadrut trade unions federation.

    Mr Ramon has been a cabinet minister in previous Labour governments but stayed out of the coalition with Mr Sharon.

    He is a vocal proponent of a security fence, now under construction, to separate Israel from the West Bank.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Simon Wilson
"All the election polls are suggesting that Amram Mitzna will win"
Reuven Hazan, professor of political science
"Israeli politics is the land of unexpected consequences"

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