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Dovish Mayor Seen as Likely New Leader of Israel's Labor Party

Israel's Labor Party is holding an internal ballot Tuesday to select its candidate for prime minister. Amram Mitzna, a former general with doveish views, is favored to head Labor in elections scheduled for January 28.

According to the latest opinion polls, 52 percent of the Labor party's members say they want Mr. Mitzna as their leader.

Mr. Mitzna, who has emerged from relative obscurity for a place in the national scene, is currently the mayor of Haifa, the Israeli city with the largest Arab population.

The other candidates are former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Haim Ramon, also a former cabinet minister. However, neither of the two has rated highly in recent surveys.

Whoever wins the Labor ballot faces an uphill battle to defeat Israel's other leading party, the Likud faction, which is being tipped to double its seats in the next parliament.

Israeli political scientist Susan Hattis Rolef told VOA 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 leader of the opposition, because in the current situation in Israel, Labor does not have much of a chance," she said.

The contest for the leadership of Likud will be decided at a party vote on November 28. The current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is being challenged by his foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Both of the Likud candidates say there will be no negotiations with the Palestinians until the violence that began more than two years ago comes to a halt.

Mr. Mitzna disagrees. He wants to re-start negotiations immediately, even if Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is a hated figure in Israel, is on the other side of the table.

Leslie Susser, the diplomatic correspondent for Jerusalem Report magazine, says the Labor and Likud campaigns will be starkly different. Mr. Susser says Likud will tell voters that more force is needed to quell Palestinian violence, while Labor will promote the idea of peace talks, and failing that, unilateral separation from the Palestinian areas. Mr. Susser says Mayor Mitzna's message may help Labor's chances. "Now they will have an accepted leader and they will be able to come out with a very clear policy alternative, which could fly," he said. "[Namely] what we need with the Palestinians if not a peace treaty, if that's impossible, [is] then to separate from the Palestinians."

The polling booths at the Labor party offices are due to close late Tuesday, and the winner is expected to be announced shortly after midnight local time.