Mitzna Resignation Batters Labor, But Raises Unity Coalition Hopes

By Chemi Shalev

Published May 09, 2003, issue of May 09, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — The sudden resignation of Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, just six months into his tenure, has opened up possibilities for the formation of a new Likud-Labor national unity government that could advance the Middle East peace process.

Coming amid a flurry of post-Iraq diplomatic activity, including the introduction of the “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace and unexpected diplomatic overtures from Syria, Mitzna’s resignation raises the possibility that Labor will be brought back into Prime Minister Sharon’s coalition to strengthen its moderate wing.

Many observers were taking a less upbeat view this week, calling Mitzna’s abrupt departure a mortal blow to an already declining Labor, leaving it rudderless and unable to play a role in the rapidly unfolding diplomatic process. A few went so far as to predict that Mitzna’s resignation will lead to a split in Labor, with doves walking out to join a new left-wing party and moderates controlling a rump party with barely a dozen Knesset seats. That would be a stunning blow to the party that led Israel to independence and ruled unchallenged for generations.

The doomsday scenarios seemed increasingly less likely in the days after Mitzna’s announcement, however, as party leaders moved quickly to unite around an interim leader. Most eyes were on senior statesman Shimon Peres. Israel’s perennial comeback kid, Peres turns 80 this summer, and he has made no secret of his wish to rejoin Sharon at the top so that he can make one last effort to push the peace process forward. And Sharon, who showed nothing but disdain for Mitzna even after the outgoing Labor leader began clamoring to join the government, is likely to be more welcoming toward Peres. The two share significant political and personal rapport, despite their ideological differences.

Sharon’s rebuff of Mitzna’s advances may have sealed the fate of Mitzna’s ill-fated and short-lived tenure as Labor chairman. After repeatedly pledging before and after the January Knesset elections that he would “never serve under that man,” Mitzna made an abrupt about-face last month and decided that only by joining Sharon could he save his teetering leadership. Mitzna’s flip-flop undermined what he describes as his most precious political commodity, his credibility. Sharon added insult to injury by making clear that he had no interest in bringing Mitzna in from the cold.

Lacking the power and prestige of a senior Cabinet portfolio, Mitzna was left with the prospect of an endless struggle against the guerrilla warfare of myriad party rivals. His supporters outnumbered in party committees by those loyal to the man he deposed from the party leadership last fall, former defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Mitzna found himself time after time at the losing end of even the pettiest political fights.

Indeed, the straw that broke the camel’s back, by Mitzna’s own admission, was a ludicrous argument over the makeup of Labor’s slate for the Haifa city council elections, slated to take place early next month. Mitzna had sought to displace a 28-year-old candidate who was ranked fourth on the Labor slate with an 80-year-old party veteran, in hopes of luring Labor’s loyalist base of aging retirees to the polls. But Labor’s national executive bureau, egged on by Ben-Eliezer, rejected Mitzna’s demand. By Mitzna’s account, it was one insult too many.

It is highly doubtful, in any case, whether Mitzna’s desperate attempt to introduce last-minute changes would have made any difference. Haifa voted Likud in the most recent national elections and is expected next month to choose a Likud mayor for the first time in the city’s history. Mitzna, himself a former mayor of the city once known as Red Haifa, thus would have faced the supreme embarrassment of losing even his own city to the opposition.

In his statement of resignation, Mitzna presented himself as an honest and straightforward politician who had failed to deal with the perennial intrigue and machinations of Labor’s internal politics. “There is no way of leading a party with people who are bent on self-destruction and political suicide,” he said.

Most of Mitzna’s critics responded along the lines of Harry Truman’s famous adage that “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Mitzna, they said, had proved himself fatally inept at navigating Labor’s traditionally treacherous waters. Worse, he was at a complete loss in weathering the storm created in the aftermath of Labor’s crushing defeat in the last elections. He failed to cultivate allies or build a support base among party activists, and showed utter disdain for the intensive politicking — glad-handing, favor-granting, endless rounds of coffee-klatches and lawn parties — necessary to manage the unruly party apparatus. Although polls showed Labor’s rank and file backing Mitzna by solid margins, hardly a tear was shed in the top party echelons when Mitzna announced his departure.

What happens next in Labor is not clear. Barely a day after Mitzna announced in a press conference that he could no longer deal with the “treachery and back-stabbing” in the party, a herd of would-be successors entered the fray to replace him. The list of potential candidates include Ben-Eliezer, former prime minister Ehud Barak, Labor firebrand Haim Ramon, former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, former finance minister Avraham Shohat and ex-generals-turned-ministers Matan Vilnai and Efraim Sneh. And there may be others still lurking in the wings.

The abundance of candidates is likely to lead to protracted internal wrangling about the timing and organization of the internal party primaries to choose Mitzna’s successor, further damaging the party’s declining image with the public at large.

Many rightwing politicians opined that Mitzna’s great weakness was not his failure to master Labor’s internal machine, but rather that he had moved the party leftward, away from Israel’s center-right electoral consensus. Most of the broader political community agreed: Mitzna’s resignation was yet another blow to Israel’s disintegrating left.

Many independent observers believe the outgoing Labor leader, who did not resign his Knesset seat, may leave the party and hook up with the leftist Meretz party to create a leftist “social-democratic” bloc. As many as six other Labor lawmakers are mentioned as possible co-defectors. In a worst-case scenario, that could leave Labor as the third-largest faction in the Knesset with 12 or 13 seats, a crushing blow for the party that had ruled Israel unchallenged for generations.

The likely move toward a new national unity government by Mitzna’s successors could strengthen Sharon’s hand against his right wing as contacts accelerate between Israelis and Palestinians following the formal presentation last week of the road map. Sharon is expected to meet with the newly appointed Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen, immediately after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah this weekend.

Although Jerusalem is already voicing disappointment at the lack of forceful Palestinian moves against the terrorist groups, especially in Gaza, Sharon is expected to authorize several goodwill gestures in the wake of Powell’s visit. Likely moves include dismantling a few illegal outposts in the West Bank, moderate easing of the economic hardships imposed on the Palestinians and possibly a symbolic withdrawal of Israeli troops from some West Bank cities. These gestures will almost certainly bring criticism from and cause unease among Sharon’s rightwing partners.

The unrest on the right is expected to grow if Abu Mazen succeeds in persuading Hamas and Islamic Jihad to cease terrorist operations on a temporary basis. Israel is calling for the complete dismantling of the terrorist groups, but it has reluctantly agreed to Washington’s demand that it advance along the steps outlined in the road map even if the Palestinian groups simply desist from terrorist operations. The two countries have agreed, however, that the complete disarming of the terrorists is a precondition for any move from Phase One of the road map to Phase Two, in which a provisional Palestinian state is established. Sharon is expected to seek assurances on this implicit understanding in his upcoming meeting in Washington with Bush at the end of the month.

In the meantime, Sharon must also contend with the surprising feelers sent out recently by Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad reportedly sent a message to Israel last week, through visiting Democractic Rep. Tom Lantos of California, offering to launch “a dialogue” with Sharon. Shortly afterward, the Israeli daily Ma’ariv disclosed that Assad’s younger brother Maher had held informal contacts this year in the Jordanian capital of Amman with ranking former Israeli diplomat Eytan Bentsur. Assad reportedly offered to relaunch peace negotiations “without conditions.” The Prime Minister’s Office publicly confirmed that it had rebuffed the offer, reasoning that the proposal, coming on the eve of war in Iraq, was intended mainly to ease American pressure on Damascus. Sharon decided to wait until the regional dust has settled.

Sharon, in any case, seems none too enthusiastic about the prospect of opening negotiations with Syria at the same time he enters a dialogue with the Palestinians. Sharon feels that he has enough on his hands as it is, to the point that he is looking forward to the possibility of reenlisting the aid of his old friend and rival, Shimon Peres, to face the Herculean task.






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