JERUSALEM, May 4 (JTA) — Israel’s Labor Party, already in shambles since its stinging defeat in the general elections earlier this year, became even more unsettled this week with the announcement by Amram Mitzna that he was stepping down as party leader. At a news conference Sunday, the dovish Mitzna, the former mayor of Haifa, blamed infighting and backstabbing by senior party officials for his decision. Mitzna, 58, said these officials, whom he did not name, pursued their personal interests instead of party interests. “There were people in the party who said everything they could to hurt me. They put their personal interests before those of the party, even during the general elections.” In those elections, held in late January, the Mitzna-led Labor Party made its worst showing in Israel’s 55 years, winning only 19 seats in the country’s 120-seat Knesset. Most commentators said Mitzna lost the election so badly because his policies were too dovish for an Israeli electorate hardened by more than two years of almost-daily clashes with the Palestinians. During the campaign, Mitzna said he would be willing to negotiate with the Palestinians without a cease-fire and would talk with any Palestinian leader, including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. If negotiations failed to produce an agreement, he said, Israel would withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank within a year. Mitzna also pledged to uproot Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip immediately upon taking office. It was unclear who would take over for Mitzna. Mitzna and party secretary Ophir Pines agreed to convene party organizations within 10 days to discuss whether new primaries would be held or a temporary leader appointed. Mitzna’s move was not altogether unexpected. Since Labor’s electoral defeat in the recent polls, political analysts had predicted that Mitzna might step down. At the news conference, Mitzna accused party officials of constantly trying to undermine him. He told the news conference that he was prepared to fight for his dovish views, but not to fight daily to prove his legitimacy as party leader. The former Haifa mayor entered national politics six months ago, after ousting former Labor Chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer in a November primary. But their rivalry did not end there. Ben-Eliezer, more of a centrist than Mitzna, still used his influence in various party bodies to block or encumber decisions Mitzna tried to put through. Mitzna is a former general who clashed with then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon during the 1982 Lebanon War and commanded Israeli troops in the West Bank during the first intifada in the late 1980s. His tenure as Haifa mayor generally is considered successful — the city is seen as a model for Arab-Jewish coexistence. Mitzna also continued an Israeli tradition of white knights with little political experience who had only a short tenure on the national stage — Ehud Barak and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak were two other ex-generals seen briefly as political saviors, but whose stars quickly burned out. Mitzna’s departure appeared to indicate a shift to the right for the Labor Party. Immediately following Mitzna’s resignation, a number of names were mentioned as possible successors. Among those names are Ben-Eliezer, who served as defense minister in Sharon’s previous unity government, Avraham Shochat, Matan Vilnai and Dalia Itzik. All of these candidates lean more to the center than does Mitzna.
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