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Profile: Haifa Mayor Announces Run for Israeli Prime Minister

Morning Edition: August 20, 2002

Amram Mitzna


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has told ministers from his Likud Party that if the new budget does not pass by the end of October, he will call for new elections. Sharon's statement led to growing speculation that Israeli elections will be held next winter, well before their scheduled date of October, 2003. Amid the election buzz, a new contender for leadership of Israel's center-left Labor Party has emerged: Haifa's Mayor Amram Mitzna. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.


Twenty years ago, Amram Mitzna was a brigadier general during Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Unhappy with the conduct of the war, he sent a letter of resignation to the Israeli army saying he had lost confidence in the Israeli defense minister. That defense minister is today's prime minister, Ariel Sharon. In the end, Mitzna was talked out of resigning by the chief of staff, but his friends say Mitzna believes Sharon blocked his further advancement in the army.

If the polls are any indication, the two adversaries could meet again, this time in front of the Israeli electorate. Mitzna announced his surprise candidacy for the Labor Party leadership last week. Since then, moderate Israeli politicians have fallen all over each other to endorse the popular two-term mayor of Haifa. Newspaper columns have been filled with laudatory pieces. Weekend polls show Mitzna winning 57 percent of the vote if primaries for leadership of the Labor Party were held today, trouncing both current party leader, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, and Haim Ramon, who had been considered Ben-Eliezer's chief rival.

Labor Party Knesset member Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, says Mitzna could reinvigorate Israel's Labor Party.

Mr. YOSSI BEILIN (Labor Party Knesset Member): I think that his candidacy revived the debate in the Labor Party and gives us hope that new leadership will emerge in the party itself.

GRADSTEIN: In his announcement to run, Mitzna showed he stands for positions that have not been popular in Israel, especially during the past two years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Mayor AMRAM MITZNA (Haifa): When I will be elected the prime minister, I will call the Palestinians to go back to the negotiation table, and we will talk with those that the Palestinians will elect as their leadership.

GRADSTEIN: Mitzna also lashed out at the current prime minister.

Mayor MITZNA: I think that Prime Minister Sharon is leading the state of Israel to nowhere. He is acting day by day instead of trying to put a real target, a real place where we would like to be, in few years. In a way, he is afraid to take difficult, sensitive and problematic decisions.

GRADSTEIN: Mitzna says that's exactly what he's done over the past nine years as mayor of Haifa, Israel's third-largest city. He has virtually eliminated Haifa's budget deficit and improved the city's infrastructure, especially in the Arab sector. He hosts a weekly radio program, where he fields questions from the city's residents, and even critics say he knows every pothole and street light in the city. Most of the criticism has come from green groups, who accuse him of ignoring environmental concerns.

Mitzna has a checkered past with the Palestinians. During the first Intifadah, or Palestinian uprising, in the late 1980s, Mitzna was in charge of the West Bank. Palestinians say he ruthlessly applied controversial Israeli policies, such as breaking the bones of Palestinian stone-throwers. But today his positions have moderated.

Knesset member Chaim Oron from the dovish Meretz party says Mitzna is a serious candidate, but he says the Israeli peace camp needs a new leader from outside the Labor Party.

Mr. CHAIM ORON (Meretz Party): After two years enjoying this government with Sharon, the Labor Party's not the power who can lead the left from the political point of view and from the social economic point of view.

GRADSTEIN: At the same time, many political commentators say Mitzna's positions are too far left to make him electable. In the past two years, Israeli attitudes have shifted more and more to the right. Polls show a hard-line candidate, either Sharon or his main rival for Likud Party leadership, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, beating any of the Labor Party candidates, including Mitzna. At the same time, polls show a majority of the Israeli public supports a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Sharon's support has been declining. Amram Mitzna hopes he can convince Israelis that he offers a better alternative. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

MONTAGNE: The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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