Opposition leader promises to return to peace process

As a young officer in Israel’s army, Amram Mitzna was so disgusted by Ariel Sharon’s handling of his country’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon that he handed in a resignation letter, saying he could no longer serve under the then-defence minister.

But Mitzna stayed on, became a general, and according to TV projections—was handily elected to head Israel’s dovish opposition on Tuesday—which will likely pit him in January elections against Sharon, now an incumbent prime minister whose 20 months in

office have been plagued by escalating violence with the Palestinians.

Sharon, Mitzna said, believes in “reliance on force and resolving the problem by forcing the other side to surrender instead of through dialogue. ... Our positions clashed then, and this is still acute today.”

Sharon himself faces a leadership primary next week, with polls showing him leading his challenger, foreign minister and ex-prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Mitzna (57) was interviewed by The Associated Press aboard his minibus as he travelled between party offices hours before TV exit polls showed him the clear winner over the previous Labour Party

leader, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Ben-Eliezer’s appeal was tarnished by his 20 months as Sharon’s defence minister before he led Labour out of the “unity government” last month, a move that prompted the current election campaign.

Mitzna said that if he lost the January 28 election, he would not enter another coalition with Sharon’s Likud party unless it was unequivocally prepared to pursue his platform of disengaging from the West Bank and Gaza Strip—an unlikely prospect.

In another election day promise, Mitzna said that if he became prime minister he’d pull troops and Jewish settlers unilaterally out of the Gaza Strip and resume negotiations on a far-reaching peace settlement in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Mitzna said he would negotiate with whomever the Palestinians chose—a departure from the position of Sharon and many Labour leaders who have concluded that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat cannot be trusted and must be sidelined.

He said he would revive the offers made by the Labour’s last premier, Ehud Barak, which included Palestinian statehood on some 95% of the West Bank and Gaza and Palestinian control over the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem—coupled with a dismissal of demands Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel.

The Palestinians rejected that formula then, and in two years of violence 1 937 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 664 on the Israeli side.
Polls show Israelis have moved to the right and are likely to provide Likud and other hawkish parties

with a parliament majority.

Mitzna believes the Palestinians—and Israel’s voters—will think again.

“Something happened in the past two years to both sides,” he said. “We had another round of terror, and we saw that with military strength we can’t solve the problem, and they (the Palestinians) also know today that with terror they can’t force Israel’s hand.”

And if a peace treaty proves impossible, Mitzna said, he’d withdraw from parts of the West Bank unilaterally as well, build a wall, and wait for a more amenable Palestinian leadership.

Mitzna visited a succession of Labour Party polling stations in the Tel Aviv area, in an Israeli-Arab town, and later in Haifa, the port city where he has been mayor since 1994. In a reflection of Labour’s doldrums, reporters and photographers sometimes vastly

outnumbered voters.

Bespectacled, grey-bearded and ramrod-straight, the candidate made awkward small-talk with party activists with a combination of military bearing and boyish reserve.

Mitzna is the latest ex-general to lead Labour, following Ben-Eliezer, Barak and Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 by an ultranationalist Israeli Jew who opposed his peace efforts.

Mitzna’s clearly dovish message contrasts with the tough talk of the three previous Labour leaders and is causing skittishness among some supporters who fear that it might drive away critical centrist voters on election day.

Mitzna achieved local renown during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He handed in a letter resigning from the army after the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by pro-Israeli Lebanese Christian militiamen in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps,

outside the Lebanese capital Beirut. He cited what he perceived as Sharon’s limited concern over the killings.

Then-premier Menachem Begin summoned the officer and persuaded him to stay on. Sharon was ultimately found indirectly responsible for the killings by an Israeli inquiry commission, and was forced to resign and spend years in lesser government positions before he

won the 2001 election.

In the late 1980s, Mitzna was the introspective general in charge of the West Bank during the first Palestinian uprising, which unlike the current one was limited mostly to riots and stonethrowing.

Acknowledging to reporters that he lost sleep over the army’s rule over the Palestinians, he seemed then to embody many Israelis’ self-perception of an occupying power seeking a solution to the confrontation. Mitzna concluded the occupation must end.

“Morality is an inseparable part of Israel’s code of behavior, or should be,” Mitzna said in the interview.

“The reality is that our intolerable friction with the Palestinians harms basic values of ours—purity of arms, respect for freedoms, and human rights.” - Sapa-AP

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