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Labor Chooses Mitzna As Leader; Newcomer Faces Daunting Challenge

Israel’s Labor Party has chosen a dovish newcomer to national politics as its standard-bearer for the upcoming election against the Likud Party.

Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna claimed victory several hours after voting ended Tuesday night and exit polls showed the former army general with a commanding lead. His two opponents, incumbent party leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and legislator Haim Ramon, conceded defeat.

With close to 60 percent of Labor’s 110,000 party members voting, a survey released by Israel’s Channel 2 Television predicted that Mitzna received 57 percent of the vote, with 35 percent going to Ben-Eliezer and 8 percent to Ramon. Final results are expected to be a bit closer.

However, if forecasts for the Jan. 28 general election are as accurate as primary polls were, Mitzna will have little time to savor his victory. Political commentators widely predict that the center-right Likud Party will win the national election, leaving Mitzna to head the opposition and rebuild the fractious Labor Party.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will face off in the Likud primary on Nov. 28.

The soft-spoken Mitzna immediately extended an olive branch to his two Labor rivals in a bid to unite forces in preparation for the national campaign.

Mitzna said his first task would be to unite the party "as one big beehive, a joint staff, in order to lead the Labor Party in the most important of all confrontations, with the Likud," the Ha’aretz newspaper reported.

Critical to this undertaking will be reconciliation with Ben-Eliezer, whose withdrawal from Sharon’s unity government — Ben-Eliezer had been defense minister — precipitated Sharon’s decision to call elections. A longtime party veteran, Ben-Eliezer still has a formidable political machine within Labor.

Earlier in the day, attorneys for Ben-Eliezer submitted a petition asking that Labor’s election board refrain from issuing official results until the voting status of some 4,500 people who registered for both the Labor and Likud parties — and who were presumed to be Ben-Eliezer supporters — is determined.

Alternately, Ben-Eliezer’s camp wanted to delay an announcement of the winner if it was determined that the gap between him and Mitzna was less than 4,500 votes, reports said. Still, Ben-Eliezer conceded just after midnight.

Mitzna offered Ben-Eliezer the No. 2 position on Labor’s Knesset list for the elections, but Ben-Eliezer said he needed time to consider the offer.

Mitzna, 57, has said if he becomes prime minister he will immediately evacuate Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.

He also has said he would be prepared to talk with any Palestinian leader, including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. The Sharon government has refused to deal with Arafat because of his ties to terrorist groups.

If negotiations prove unfruitful, Mitzna has said, he will withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank to more defensible lines.

On the economy, Mitzna advocates less spending on settlements on more on retirees, students and poor development towns.

Mitzna’s dovish positions date to his army career. As a brigadier general in 1982, he criticized then-Defense Minister Sharon’s handling of the Lebanon War.

Political observers noted that while Mitzna’s dovish stances toward the Palestinians appeal strongly to Labor voters, on a national scale Mitzna will have to tap more centrist voters to win broader support.

At the same time, observers noted, playing to the center could hurt Labor’s chances if Sharon wins the Likud primary. As Netanyahu positions himself to the right in Likud, Sharon has taken more centrist stands.

Though polls doubt Mitzna’s ability to lead Labor to victory in the national elections, some observers say Labor would do better if it faces a Likud led by Netanyahu.

Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi of the Likud predicted that "Mitzna’s victory means defeat for Labor at the polls in 70 days."

Housing and Construction Minister Natan Sharansky of the immigrant party Yisrael Ba’Aliyah said the selection of the left-leaning Mitzna as Labor leader made it much less likely that the winner of the January elections would be able to set up another national unity government.

Though Mitzna’s political experience is limited to his tenure as Haifa mayor, he said he didn’t expect to face resentment in Labor because he didn’t work his way up through its ranks.

"I believe that the party institutions will cooperate with me if I am elected. We are a party that wants to return to power and to increase its strength in the Knesset," Ha’aretz quoted Mitzna as saying. "If the party unites and everyone gives a little, we can win 30 seats. But if its members are incapable of working together, we are liable to decline to 15 seats, and perhaps even less."

A first test of that ability was expected Thursday, when the party convention was slated to meet to determine how Labor will select its Knesset roster.

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