In less than two months, on January 28, 2003, the Israeli public will vote in an early parliamentary election. Israelis will have the chance to change their future and opt for a peaceful settlement to the Palestinian conflict. Polls show that 65% of the Israeli population support an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and dismantling of the settlements. Paradoxically, the same polls show that they will vote by the same margin to elect Sharon, who is propagating and practicing the opposite. Does this seeming contradiction stem from the fact that Labor, as the largest opposition party, has lost its credibility as a result of its participation in the national unity government? Perhaps Labor has not had a charismatic candidate to inspire confidence. Now Amram Mitzna, yet another former general, has become the new leader of the Labor party. Mitzna, a candidate unsullied by participation in the Sharon government, is the new hope for a fresh start. Can General Mitzna become the General de Gaulle of Israel? Can he put an end to the Israeli occupation as de Gaulle got France out of Algeria?
When Ehud Barak of Labor was elected Prime Minister of Israel he had one success story amidst a plethora of failures. He was successful in extricating the Israeli occupation forces from South Lebanon, thus concluding an embarrassing chapter in the annals of his â€œgloriousâ€ army. Barak thereafter indulged in megalomania as the national and international media praised him for his â€œcourageousâ€ move.
From his predecessor Mr. Netanyahu of the Likud party, Barak inherited a peace process that was already in the intensive care unit. Instead of resuscitating the patient, he chose to continue along Netanyahuâ€™s course and thus became a Labor Prime Minister implementing Likud policy, finally causing the demise of the peace process.
Barak did not show enough courage and vision to withdraw from the occupied territories or to halt settlement activities. Despite the acclaim that his â€œgenerous offerâ€ to the Palestinians received in the Western press, he was no better than a colonial ruler attempting to force Israeli peace on the Palestinians from the barrel of a gun. Barak was the one who sanctioned Sharonâ€™s provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif and he was the one who gave the order to shoot the Palestinian protesters. The Second Intifada broke out and he was unable to contain it. Incapable of leading his party to victory, he left office thoroughly defeated, with no tears shed at his departure.
Along came Sharon, promising the Israeli people the same things that Barak before him had promisedâ€”namely, continuing the occupation and settlement-building and above all, security. What Barak hadnâ€™t achieved by force, Sharon would achieve by more force. The Sharon era brought more assassinations, demolitions of homes and mass collective punishment to the Palestinians. Yet the Palestinian resistance movement was able to destroy Sharonâ€™s premise that, security for Israelis, could be achieved by increasingly harsh steps taken against the Palestinians and it succeeded in bringing the conflict to the Israeli public and damaging the Israeli economy.
Sharon invited the Labor party to join a national unity government, using Shimon Peresâ€™ reputation to gain an international seal of approval for the harsh measures he took against the captive civilian Palestinian population. Peresâ€™ complicity in this deal caused him to lose credibility even among his friends, the Europeans. Ben Eliezer, the Defense Minister from the Labor party, was more a Likud than Labor minister. Both Peres and Ben Eliezer were described as sheep on Sharonâ€™s farm or even as Sharonâ€™s doormats; their role being to whitewash their masterâ€™s image abroad.
In the end, the Labor party was sidelined to the point of meaninglessness. The national unity government was dissolved and new parliamentary elections scheduled.
In its search for a new candidate, the Labor party discovered Amram Mitzna, now the mayor of Haifa. He had earlier gained a reputation as the general who resigned in protest of Sharonâ€™s policies in Lebanon in 1982. However sincere his resignation may have been, he withdrew it and returned to active duty two weeks later. That Sharon and Mitzna canâ€™t stand each other is an understatement, but it does not do Mitzna any credit.
Mitzna himself had no qualms about meting out harsh treatment to the Palestinians under his control while commander of the West Bank during the first Intifada. According to Hadas Ladav in Challenge Magazine (September, 2002), General Mitzna was responsible for the demolition of 121 houses, 28 deportations, and the killing of 302 and injury of 3252 Palestinians from December 1987 until March 1989.
Noam Chomsky describes Mitznaâ€™s activity as commander of the West Bank in his book, Fateful Triangle as follows:
The army has destroyed the homes of over 3000 people (often destroying or severely damaging others nearby) on the pretext that a family member is suspected of throwing stones or some other crime. This particularly ugly form of collective punishment, the Israeli press reports, is conducted â€œunder a law that also does not permit them to rebuild.â€ General Amram Mitznaâ€¦.was â€œparticularly brutal in this regardâ€ while commander of the West Bank, the report continues, because â€œhe had to compensate for his left-wing image.â€ General Mitznaâ€™s soulful expression was regularly seen on American TV screens, revealing the inner torment of the humanist compelled by Arab violence to resort to force in self-defenseâ€”â€œto shoot and cry,â€ in the conventional Hebrew phrase. Israeli journalist Tom Segev saw a different picture. Reviewing hospital records of victims of army shootings, with splinters of bullets in the upper part of the body and parts of the brain leaking out of an empty eyehole, he wrote that â€œthe name of General Amram Mitzna was not mentioned by the doctor, but his face was visible, so to speak, from the X-ray photos he was showing us, and it was disgusting, frightening, a negative of the image of â€˜the beautiful Israeliâ€™ that his public relations experts construct for him.
Mitzna served as mayor of Haifa propagating peaceful coexistence between the Jews and the Arabs of that city. He managed to develop a good relationship with the elite of the Arab population, who boasted of having coffee or tea with Mitzna. That his good relationship with the elite did not result in improvements of the poorer Arab parts of the city, or the building of housing projects for the Arab community is rarely mentioned, nor is the fact that the Haifa municipality will very soon demolish tens of houses in the poor Arab neighborhood Wadi Nisnas to make room for a highway. Not even the Arab elite who like to take their tea with Mitzna mention these things; it is not their homes which are threatened. Mitzna resembles a typical colonialist with a military background who has nothing but contempt for the Palestinians, but wants to do things by the book and keep his slate clean.
Mitzna was called on to leave his comfortable life as mayor of Haifa and become the Labor candidate for Prime Minister by supporters who see their business interests in the Middle East jeopardized by the continuation of the conflict and deterioration in relations between Israel and its neighbors . The US showed an interest in him also. Just two days after Mitzna met with members of the US Congress in August, the local newspaper Yediot Haifa reported that he was paid a visit by Mr. Daniel Kurtzer, US Ambassador to Israel.
Among Mitznaâ€™s early statements after announcing his candidacy was a pledge to withdraw from Gaza and to resume negotiations with the Palestinians. He also spoke vaguely about dismantling some of the West Bank settlements, but would not be pinned down as to how many of them would be abandoned. Nevertheless, we cannot help feeling hopeful when people compare him to de Gaulle. If only he could achieve what his predecessors failed to achieve, bringing the two sides out of their deadly wedlock!
General de Gaulle holds the position in history as the French general who possessed the courage, ethical clarity, and political firmness to get France out of Algeria. Even as the killing was at its peak, and more than one million Algerians had lost their lives, he stood up and declared that France should get out of Algeria.
The true strength of this position was that it was clear and final. De Gaulle did not negotiate to continue the French occupation in another form. The decision was as simple as it was radical: Algeria was to be free and independent.
Can Mitzna be the de Gaulle of Israel? Why not!
This would entail taking a position as firm and final as that of de Gaulle. End the occupation of all the territories that were conquered in the 1967 war. Dismantle the settlements. Acknowledge and adhere to the UN resolutions regarding the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
Yes, this is possible, if Mitzna avoids the smooth intrigues of Yossi Beilin, the tricky maneuvers of Shimon Peres and the word games of Ehud Barak. This is possible if Mitzna refrains from flirting with Ben Eliezer and the Likud in hopes of winning over those in the Israeli â€œmiddleâ€.
The first signals from Mitzna are indeed encouraging, despite the analysis of his history and personality. It is imperative that he manages to etch in the hard stone of Israeli reality. This requires a strong Labor party that must detach itself completely from Likud and present a new face.
The experience of some fifty years of conflict should give impetus to Mitznaâ€™s new vision. Barakâ€™s and Netanyahuâ€™s failures should be a warning of the urgency of the situation. The blood and grief of the past two years under Sharon should provide the momentum essential to change the course of the conflict. Peace will not be attained through occupation and settlements.
Mitzna may not be able to win the coming election on January 28, 2003. But he can present an alternative vision for a better future; a future where a genuine and comprehensive peace will be enduring. This can be his opportunity.
Sharon and Mofaz are doomed to failure just as Netanyahu before them, unless their success is measured in the continuation of the occupation and building more settlements, which guarantee that the confrontation will continue with ever more losses in human lives on both sides and a deteriorating economy.
Then we shall all face a new vision of peace, which can only be achieved by a staunch and courageous leadership of integrity that acknowledges the national rights of the Palestinian people to live in freedom and independence.
Will Mitzna live up to the comparison with General de Gaulle?
It could happen.
But first he has to believe.
Then he has to change.
Then he has to act.