You have probably not heard the name Amram Mitzna mentioned very often before. The dovish Mitzna was elected on Monday as the chairman of the Israeli Labor Party, the main opposition to the hawkish government headed by Ariel Sharon. It means that he will be the leading challenge to whoever heads the right-wing Likud party in the coming elections on Jan. 28, 2003. According to all polls, however, his chances are slim; if anything, it is likely that Labor will weaken, not strengthen, in the coming elections. It seems that either Ariel Sharon or Benjamin Netanyahu — whichever one wins the leadership of the Israeli right — will be charged with the task of creating a coalition and heading a new government. So he’s a goner, you say. Why am I bothering to write about him at all? Well, here’s why:
1. He’s going to be around for a while. The average life span of an Israeli government in the last 10 years or so is short: The current government is less than two years old and has already dissolved. This is the fate of a parliamentary democracy. However, the leaders of these shaky governments are rarely held accountable for their clear lack of leadership skills. The previously mentioned Netanyahu was humiliatingly defeated in May 1999, while Sharon and Peres have been on the national scene since — hold tight — the 1950s. All this means that even if, or rather when, Mitzna is defeated, he will probably still remain the leader of the Israeli opposition until the next time the government falls. Thus, you might see him running for prime minister again before long.
2. He is a first-rate example of everything that is paradoxical and hard to understand about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the mayor of the city of Haifa, where even these days Jews and Arabs live side by side in peace, he proved to be a truly tolerant man, striving to end any discrimination against the Arabs in the city and to promote a real dialogue. Indeed, he is probably the only mainstream Israeli politician today to win the trust of Israel’s Arab citizens. He is also a retired general: He served as the overall commander of the West Bank during the early years of the first Palestinian uprising (intifada). Sound like a contradiction? Welcome to the Middle East.
3. He says it like it is. Too many people expressing opinions about the Middle East seem to be in love with the role in which they have cast themselves: victims. Both sides genuinely see themselves as victims, after all. And you know what? In different ways, they are both right. But Mitzna is trying to move beyond that. He understands that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are going to oblige the other side by disappearing any time soon, so at some point there will have to be a two-state solution; and one might as well start working on it now before more people die. And he bravely acknowledges publicly what every Israeli knows in his heart: that the dismantlement of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank is inevitable.
4. He just might surprise you. Most Israelis would withdraw from the West Bank tomorrow if they thought that would bring long-lasting peace. Mitzna does, therefore, have a potential constituency; but in the present political climate, voting for him would represent for most Israelis the triumph of hope over reason. But hope can prevail, sometimes, as long as it has some basis in reality.
Thus, the real question is whether there indeed exists a Palestinian equivalent of a figure like Mitzna, a leader willing to listen to the other side’s fears, to compromise, and to agree to a two-state solution.
Mandu Sen is a junior in Silliman College.