Israeli opposition picks pro-peace general as leader

Justin Huggler
Wednesday 20 November 2002 01:00

A former Israeli general who has promised to resume peace talks with Yasser Arafat if he becomes Prime Minister has been elected leader of the main opposition party ahead of January's general elections.

With almost all the results counted, Amram Mitzna had won 54 per cent of the votes, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had 37 per cent and Haim Ramon about seven per cent, with a record 65 per cent turnout among party members.

The incumbent Labour leader, Mr Ben-Eliezer, conceded defeat in an address to his backers at the party headquarters last night. An hour later the winner, Mr Mitzna made a speech appealing for party unity and pledging that he would bring "a new reality for the state of Israel".

Mr Mitzna may have secured the Labour leadership ­ but his chances of becoming Prime Minister are slim. The polls show Labour is way behind Ariel Sharon's Likud Party. But Mr Mitzna has said he will take Labour into the elections on what is, in Israel's current political climate, a radical peace agenda. At a time when Mr Sharon's government and the US are refusing to speak to Mr Arafat, Mr Mitzna has said he would return to the negotiating table with the Palestinian leader.

Yesterday Mr Mitzna went further, saying that if elected Prime Minister he would order an immediate unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, dismantle Jewish settlements inside the Strip and move their inhabitants into Israel. If renewed peace talks with the Palestinians failed, he has said he would order a similar withdrawal from much ­ but not all ­ of the West Bank, and dismantle many ­ but again, not all ­ of the settlements there.

Mr Mitzna is a complete newcomer to national politics ­ he is currently mayor of Haifa, Israel's third city ­ and has been derided as an amateur by his opponents within the Labour Party.

The Palestinians will have some doubts too. Mr Mitzna was commander of the Israeli army in the West Bank during the first intifada, and presided over brutal repression. But in choosing Mr Mitzna ahead of Mr Ben-Eliezer, Labour members have voted for a return to the party's pro-peace stance.

Many Israelis believe yesterday's poll was to decide who the next opposition leader will be. Who will be Prime Minister, they say, will be decided at the end of this month, when Mr Sharon faces his own leadership contest, against Benjamin Netanyahu. There, the competition is more likely to be over who is most hard line on the Palestinian issue.

* Israeli troops backed by armour killed a Palestinian militant and four passers-by during a clash in the West Bank city of Tulkarem yesterday, Palestinian witnesses and hospital officials said. Tareq al-Zaghal, from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, was killed along with a 13-year-old boy, a civilian security guard and two other local people who were passing in a car, the witnesses and hospital officials said. Israel's Channel One television said the Palestinians in the car had tried to ram a nearby army roadblock.

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