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Former Army General to Lead Israel's Labor Party - 2002-11-20

Exit polls show that Israel's Labor Party has elected former Army general Amram Mitzna as its leader to challenge Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party in general elections next January. General Mitzna, a relative newcomer to politics, won 54 percent of the vote compared to 37 percent for the current Labor Party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

Opinion polls had predicted a Mitzna victory in the three way race. The other candidates, former Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer and another former cabinet minister, Haim Ramon, had not been doing well in recent surveys.

But even with his strong showing Mr. Mitzna has an uphill struggle if he is to defeat Israel's other leading party, the Likud faction, which polls show likely to double the number of seats it holds in the next parliament.

Mr. Mitzna is a retired general but his military background belies a dovish agenda. He has vowed to resume talks with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat without preconditions and to pull Israeli troops out of Gaza no matter what.

"The headline of my policy is resuming negotiations without preconditions. Hopefully the Palestinians will meet us and talk with us openly and directly and I hope we will have a partner on the other side to come to an agreement," he said.

But after two years of the Palestinian intifada and all the violence associated with it, there appears little sentiment in Israel for the course Mr. Mitzna is promoting.

Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his chief rival Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say there will be no negotiations with the Palestinians until the violence ends.

Opinion polls predict the Likud Party is likely to beat the Labor group in the upcoming general elections. The survey says the Israeli public appears to be leaning to the right after more than two years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting and the collapse of the peace process championed by the Labor Party.

Israeli political scientist, Susan Hattis Rolef, says it is hard to imagine Labor becoming the head of the next government.

"As people say, it is a contest to know who will be the head of the opposition, because in the current situation in Israel, Labor does not have much of a chance," he said

But some analysts here do say the one thing that Labor has going for it is that the party now has a very clear policy alternative to that pursued by Mr. Sharon for the past two years, that has so far not brought an end to the violence.

In the latest round of the conflict, five Palestinians, including a teenager, were killed by Israeli fire after troops went into the West Bank town of Tulkarm late Tuesday.