'Sharon's Government Is Leading Us Nowhere'

Amram Mitzna had his first confrontation with Ariel Sharon exactly 20 years ago. Seething over the massacre that Lebanese Phalangist militias had just committed against Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps under Israel's watch, Mitzna, a former field commander, wrote a damning letter to the Army chief of staff about the man who served as their boss. He had "lost confidence" in Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Mitzna announced. Mitzna was pressured to withdraw the letter by the then prime minister, Menachem Begin--but the controversy helped lead to a commission of inquiry that forced Sharon to quit. Now, with Israel locked in another bloody struggle and Sharon at the helm, Mitzna is preparing to face down his old nemesis again. "The current government led by Sharon is leading us nowhere," the Haifa mayor told NEWSWEEK after announcing his candidacy for leadership of the Labor Party on Aug. 13. "Using more and more force will lead us to nothing. You must take a political initiative."

Mitzna is doing exactly that. Since entering the political fray this month, the unassuming Haifa mayor has energized Israel's peace camp and offered the first real challenge to the hawkish prime minister since Sharon took office 19 months ago. Labor Party leader and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, whose alliance with Sharon in the governing coalition has brought Labor to its lowest standing in the polls in decades, trails Mitzna by 30 percent in recent surveys. Mitzna says if he's elected in the November primary, he'll pull Labor out of Sharon's government immediately, which could force early elections at the start of 2003. And although Mitzna remains a less popular candidate than the prime minister, Sharon's luster is fading. Most Israelis now lack confidence in both his ability to bring Israel out of a deep recession and to negotiate a peace settlement. "Mitzna is the first left-wing candidate in a long time to pose a threat," columnist Hemi Shalev wrote in Maariv. "He is offering hope, despite everything, that the fight has not been lost."

Mitzna's rise mimics a familiar pattern in Israel's turbulent politics. Like Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin, he is a retired Army general who strongly advocates compromise with the Palestinians. As the military commander in charge of the West Bank during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, Mitzna had frequent run-ins with Jewish settlers who complained that he wasn't doing enough to protect them against stone-throwing demonstrators. Today, he says, many settlements should be dismantled even without an agreement with the Palestinians. Mitzna also refuses to rule out direct negotiation with Yasir Arafat, a stance that puts him at odds even with some prominent leftists. But, Mitzna says, "I hope that the emergence of a new alternative [in Israel] will help rebuild confidence with the other side."

Mitzna's candidacy comes at a time when both sides appear to be edging away from violent confrontation. Last week Ben Eliezer ordered the withdrawal of Israeli troops and tanks from Bethlehem--a move widely seen as an attempt to position the Defense minister back in the peace camp. Attacks against Israelis have dropped sharply in recent weeks, and many Palestinian leaders say that militant factions are reconsidering their strategy. "People are talking again about peaceful resistance," says Kamel Hamed, the leader of Fatah in Bethlehem. "It's no longer acceptable to talk about bombs or other attacks." Mitzna may be just the man to capitalize on both sides' exhaustion.