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Profile: Israeli Labor Party Leader Pledges to End Palestinian Conflict - 2002-11-26

Israel's Labor Party leader, Amram Mitzna, is making a determined bid to become Prime Minister on a platform pledging to end his country's long conflict with the Palestinians. But the odds are against him. Mr. Mitzna faces a tough time convincing enough voters to swing to the left in elections scheduled for January.

His arrival on the national political scene is stirring up interest, not only in Israel but abroad.

The Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, this week extended an invitation to the new Labor leader to visit him in Cairo. Mr. Mubarak apparently sees the prospect of Mr. Mitzna becoming Prime Minister as offering fresh hope of breaking the current deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

And when the Foreign Press Association in Israel hosted Mr. Mitzna at a forum in Jerusalem this week, the hall was filled to capacity.

"My appearance on this stage being the elected leader of the Labor Party, I bring a new hope," he said. "And I hope this new hope, new positive horizon, will drive also the Palestinians to take steps, to do something, to stop terrorism. Enough is enough. We have to stop the bloodshed and sit, to negotiate, to talk."

He told the gathering his election as Labor party chief offers a historic opportunity for the Palestinians to end their violence, and achieve their goals through peaceful means.

Mr. Mitzna, who is 57 years old, used the occasion to outline his proposed agenda. He says that in office he will immediately pull all troops and Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip, leaving the area under full Palestinian control.

He would then try to reach a peace treaty with the Palestinians within a year, but if the talks fail, he would have Israel withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank also.

"My program is to disengage ourselves from the Palestinians. This is the key to my strategy," he said. "We will disintegrate ourselves from the Palestinians, whether it will be by negotiations, discussions, or a unilateral approach."

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Shaath agrees that the peace talks must be put back on track.

He says Mr. Mitzna's goal should be to lead Israel back down the same road taken by the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord in 1993.

"We would like to see a leadership that is committed to the peace process, a leadership that follows on the track of the late Prime Minister Rabin who signed the peace of the brave with President (Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat," he said.

But it is not clear whether Mr. Mitzna has the ability either to win an election or to take on the responsibility of running a national government.

A former top military commander, he was a career army officer before becoming Mayor of Haifa in 1993. He was born on one of Israel's kibbutzes, or collective farms, which are bastions of leftist and secular thinking.

Mr. Mitzna was a general during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and he did something then that seems now to have set his course for the next two decades.

After the massacres of Palestinian refugees by Israeli backed Lebanese Christian militia groups at Sabra and Shatilla, Mr. Mitzna refused to continue serving under the then-Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon. Mr. Sharon is now the Prime Minister, and could be Mr. Mitzna's opponent in the January election. Mr. Sharon's Likud party will select its candidate later this week.

Mr. Mitzna returned to the army after Mr. Sharon left the Defense Ministry. He became known as an uncompromising co-ordinator of the Israeli army's activities in the West Bank during the first Palestinian intifada, which began in 1987.

The Labor Party candidate is hoping these dual sides of his character -- being at the same time a tough-minded general and also a supporter of peace talks -- will help to win him widespread support.

But Likud member, Moshe Arens, a former Defense Minister, says while Mr. Mitzna may have arrived on the national political front like a rocket, he could disappear just as quickly.

He says Mr. Mitzna is not only facing defeat at the upcoming polls but is also likely to ensure that Labor is banished to the opposition in the next parliament.

"What is happening clearly is that the Labor Party is turning left and that means under Mitzna's leadership, they will probably not be candidates for a national-unity government, after the elections," he said.

Labor Party stalwart Shimon Peres says Mr. Mitzna also faces the task of unifying the party, which has been wracked with divisions since losing office, nearly two years ago.

"He has to unify the ranks and the files of the country. We shall stand beside him. The country needs Labor as a vision, not only as a history. We need a strong Labor Party for the future and not just for its very brilliant past," he said.

Labor supporters hope Mr. Mitzna will be the one to strike a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians or at the very least get Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But those on the Israeli right say Mr. Mitzna has an outdated far-left ideology, discredited by the last two years of violence.

And while the bloodshed continues, it is hard for most Israelis to believe that peace talks will be revived in the near future, let alone succeed.

That may be why in recent days Mr. Mitzna has taken to attacking the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat publicly, a move which could ease the concerns of some undecided voters.

But observers believe it is also an indication that the Israeli Labor Party leader already acknowledges he has a lot of ground to make up if he is to have any chance to unseat the ruling Likud Party on January 28.