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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 17:33 GMT
Mitzna's tough road ahead
Amram Mitzna
Mitzna wants to reach out to the Palestinians

A new face in Israeli politics has swept to the Labour leadership, promising a return to the peace process and a fresh start for the moribund party.

Now the hard work begins for Amram Mitzna, 57-year-old reserve general, Mayor of Haifa, and virtual unknown until a few months ago.


You're just fresh meat sucked into the leadership vacuum

Ha'aretz newspaper

He will have to convince a jaded Israeli public that negotiating with the Palestinians, including their much-maligned leader Yasser Arafat, is a credible alternative to the hardline security approach of Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mr Mitzna has promised immediate and unconditional peace talks. If they failed, he would remove Jewish settlements from Gaza and parts of the West Bank and build a security wall to divide Israel from Palestinian lands - a policy known here as unilateral separation.

But before he begins the struggle for Israeli hearts and minds, he has to reunite his divided and dispirited party.

Labour is on the verge of becoming insignificant.

For years the party of government, the part has seen its support drop to historic lows in the polls.

It never recovered from the failure of the Oslo peace process. And nearly two years of national unity government has blurred the line between right and left, and deepened Labour's identity crisis.

Lack of experience?

Mr Mitzna's first task will be to appease the camp of the loser, former Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer. Although Mr Ben Eliezer promised to back the new leader, he still has control of the party apparatus.


It wasn't only a leadership vacuum which Mitzna identified in the Labour Party, he also identified an ideological vacuum

Yedioth Ahronoth
Some Israeli newspapers said Mr Mitzna won mostly because Labour wanted to get rid of Mr Ben Eliezer.

"You're just fresh meat sucked into the leadership vacuum," wrote commentators in the left-wing Ha'aretz daily.

Mr Mitzna is "receiving a party on the decline, a den of snakes and intrigue, with an ambush awaiting him at every corner," the paper says.

The media questioned whether the newcomer had the mettle to deal with the cut-throat politics in not only his party, but the country.

Mr Sharon has a "talent for eating new and naive politicians like yourself for breakfast," said Ha'aretz.

Critically, the new Labour leader has only two months to turn the party around and launch a convincing national campaign before he faces general elections.

Alternative policy

But most media acknowledge he truly embodies a Labour alternative that Mr Ben Eliezer did not.

"It wasn't only a leadership vacuum which Mitzna identified in the Labour Party," said the mass circulation Yedioth Ahronoth, "he also identified an ideological vacuum."

Indeed, his comfortable win suggests that many in Labour are eager to return to an agenda left of centre, and remain committed to a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As for the Israeli public, polls show contradictory trends among voters that could be exploited. There is majority support for both the creation of a Palestinian state and tough measures to halt the current violence.

Finally, Mr Mitzna's election presents a challenge to Mr Sharon.

It virtually eliminates the prime minister's chances of re-establishing a national unity government, one of the pillars of his policy.

And although polls show Likud making significant election gains, it would still be more difficult to hold together a narrow right-wing government than a broad-based coalition.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Barbara Plett
"These are the new warriors of the Palestinian uprising"

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18 Nov 02 | Middle East
06 Nov 02 | Middle East
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