Battling for Israel's future
Saga February 2002.
William Shawcross meets Amram Mitzna, the new leader of Israel's Labour Party, who is offering voters stark choices as he seeks to end the violence.
Two years ago, at the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, Amram Mitzna, Mayor of Haifa, addressed a crowd of angry Israeli Arabs in his town. There had been clashes in many parts of Israel, with police already shooting dead 13 demonstrators. To confront a crowd of Arabs, alone, was brave. He stood in front of them and declared: "We have lived together in the past and we can do so now and in the future." Such was the force of his personality that the Arabs dispersed peacefully.
But can they live together? That is the question that Mitzna must now address on a larger stage. As the new leader of the Labour Party, he is campaigning against the Likud Party led by Ariel Sharon, Israel�s bulldozer-like Prime Minister. When I met Mitzna, about six weeks before the general election due for late January, the polls were not encouraging. They have since looked much better for him. He has been brave enough to offer a real alternative - however unpopular - to Sharon�s hardnosed attitude to the Palestinians.
Our meeting took place in a modest building in a run-down part of Tel Aviv characterised by empty lots and untidy streets. Labour�s spin doctors apparently imagined that moving the party headquarters from a plusher part of town back towards their roots might help. Given that hundreds of people have been blown apart by suicide bombers over the past two years, the security was fairly low-key. A young man asked me, "Are you carrying a weapon?" "No," I said. He gave my bag a cursory inspection and showed me into Mitzna�s office.
Although his party has reduced Sharon's lead through a series of attacks on alleged corruption within Likud, Mitzna has no doubt that the most important issue in the election is how to deal with the Palestinian question. "This is the key to all our troubles as I see it. After so many years of living with the idea that we hold the West Bank and Gaza under our control, the time has come that we have to take a decision."
Mitzna says that if elected he will negotiate with whichever Palestinian leaders there are - even if the violence continues. By contrast, Sharon refuses to negotiate with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, or other Palestinian representatives unless the suicide bombings and other attacks are ended.
"Since the Six Day War, people have felt that decisions on the West Bank and Gaza could be postponed," Mitzna says. "Some people felt that we could stay there for ever. Others felt that we should have left them immediately after the Six Day War. Now we are paying the price for holding them."
Arafat�s corrupt and brutal leadership is a serious problem for any Israeli leader, let alone for the Palestinians themselves. But Mitzna argues that Sharon�s policy results in Arab extremists being able to control the agenda and prevent any chance of peace.
While the polls show that about 70 per cent of Israelis support Mitzna�s position on negotiations, paradoxically the same number have said they will vote for Sharon. "Why is that?" I asked.
"That�s the $64,000 question. There�s more than one answer. Till recently there was no alternative. Labour has been part of the coalition government led by Sharon. Secondly, Sharon and Likud have succeeded in persuading people that they are doing their best - even if they don�t succeed. They have managed to blame the Palestinians for everything."
Mitzna says that it is his job to bridge the gap between the two strands of Israeli public opinion. "Many more Israelis see we cannot go on like this."
Amram Mitzna is an elegant, grey-haired man, with a short, neat beard and a gentle appearance. Though the Opposition leader resembles a professor, he is a distinguished former general who served 30 years in the army. He has been wounded in battle three times.
He was born on a kibbutz in 1945. His parents were refugees from Hitler's Germany. If Mitzna were to be elected Prime Minister, he would be the first Israeli in that position with German ancestry. Almost all other Israeli leaders have their origins in Russia or Poland.
Mitzna and Sharon have been in conflict before. In 1982, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Mitzna, then a general, asked to be suspended from his command. He had no confidence in Sharon, who was the defence minister, and he was opposed to the invasion of Lebanon. He was appalled by the Lebanese militia's massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Beirut, for which an Israeli commission later blamed Sharon, who was forced to resign.
Mitzna stayed. He was in command of the Israeli army on the West Bank when the first Palestinian uprising or intifada began in 1987. At that time, he was said to be as tough with the Palestinians as any other commander; but he has since said this taught him that force could not produce a solution. For the past nine years, Mitzna has been, by all accounts, an excellent mayor of his home town, Haifa.
As I travelled around Israel after seeing Mitzna, the vast scale of the tasks faced by whoever wins the election became clearer and clearer. As a consequence of the new Palestinian intifada, even sitting in a café or travelling on a bus is an existential experience - no one knows when the bombers will strike again. So far, almost 3,000 Israelis and Palestinians have been killed.
Foreign investors and tourists have fled this violence, while military expenditure has rocketed. As a result the economy has collapsed, leaving in its wake a gap between rich and poor that is now one of the highest in the world, and growing. For a country founded on the egalitarian principles of the kibbutz, this is an uncomfortable fact to face.
In addition, the demographics are against the five million Jews in Israel. There are about 1.5 million Arabs living in Israel itself and another three million in the Palestinian territories, the West Bank and Gaza, occupied by Israel since 1967. In other words, Jews and Arabs are now almost equal in number - but in 20 years� time the Arabs will be a large majority. How then will a Jewish state survive? Perhaps only if there are two states, Israeli and Palestinian, living side by side.
I met an old friend, Daniel Kumerman, formerly a Czech student activist, now Czech ambassador to Israel. He is a Jew and during the dark Stalinist years in Prague his father had just two comments on every item of news: "Good for Israel. Bad for Israel." I bore that in mind as I set off from Jerusalem to the West Bank.
I travelled on broad new roads built by Israel in recent years to link Jerusalem to the Jewish settlements there, bypassing ancient Palestinian towns like Bethlehem and Ramallah, where Yasser Arafat has what is left of his headquarters after Israeli military bulldozers flattened all but a couple of rooms - a decision by Sharon that Mitzna finds absurd because it merely gained sympathy for Arafat. Palestinian cars are not allowed on these roads.
My guides, from the United Nations, drove me into Hebron. It was depressing. Outside the ancient town is a large Jewish settlement called Kiryat Arba, Town of the Four Fathers, protected by walls and heavy gates. Hebron itself is built on the sides of a valley - at the bottom of the town is the tomb of Abraham, a holy site to Jews. To get there, we wound down unkempt shuttered streets, eerily empty for the middle of the morning.
There is a 24-hour curfew around the tomb because a few hundred fundamentalist Jewish settlers, who believe in their divine right to be there, have seized Arab houses near the tomb. They are protected by Israeli soldiers, most of whom are young, inadequately trained conscripts or reservists.
The tragedy of this situation is constantly brought home: a week before my visit 12 Israeli soldiers were killed in an ambush near the tomb. A couple of days after I was there, a sniper killed two more, one of them a beautiful young woman. The Israeli Defence Forces immediately began bulldozing Palestinian houses around the tomb.
The next day I drove to Gaza. This strip of land along the Mediterranean is about 30 miles long and five miles wide. It is completely fenced off from Israel. Once one is through the complicated border posts, it is not easy to get out. The demographic threat that I had been warned about is very obvious here, where there are more than a million people. It is now very hard for them to go to work in Israel; many thousands of angry young men are therefore sitting around with nothing to do.
Many of the houses I visited were riddled with bullets or had lost their roofs after Israeli attacks. Almost every wall was covered with slogans of hatred against Israel. A couple of days after I was there, five young unarmed men seeking work were gunned down by an Israeli tank as they tried desperately to get out of Gaza.
All the Israelis that I met agreed that Hebron and Gaza are bad for Israel. One huge change in recent years is that most Israelis now accept the need for a Palestinian state; it is how to get there that is the question.
The cycle of terror bombings followed by brutal reprisals seems to be endless. The violence of the intifada has driven Israeli politics to the right and imposed an enormous strain on the tolerance of Israeli civil society. Many people said to me �Arafat made Sharon.�
Mitzna�s answer is a radical one. He says that if he becomes Prime Minister he will immediately start talks with the Palestinians without preconditions. "Who with?" I asked. �Will you negotiate with Arafat ?�
"That's an irrelevant question, he said, immediately adding, almost apologetically, "I don't want to sound rude. But everyone asks that as the first question. I never talked with Arafat. All the other Israeli leaders have talked with him. I haven't. The key question is whether the Palestinians will take the chance and put together a delegation which will have the authority to negotiate. At the end of the day Arafat can sign as President."
If talks are not possible, Mitzna has a fall-back position. Again it is radical, and is known in Israel as �unilateral separation�.
"If we discover there is nothing to negotiate about and no one to negotiate with, then we will have to act unilaterally. I would leave Gaza at once,� he says, �and give the Palestinian Authority the chance of behaving responsibly. Now the Palestinians don�t feel responsible for their people."
He would be prepared to leave the West Bank too, although leaving unilaterally would be very complicated. It would mean building a wall or an electric protective fence all around it, similar to that which already exists around Gaza. The Sharon government has already started to build such a fence in the north west of the West Bank.
Mitzna knows that "it's always hard for politicians to take initiatives". Particularly in a society that has been under threat since independence. "People are afraid of changes. But a society which does not initiate has no destiny."
Sharon dismisses him as a �novice� and his peace plan as "irresponsible" and "a drastic mistake". But Mitzna argues that Sharon has made no attempt to move things on. "No one knows what are his thoughts on solving the situation. But he reassures people nonetheless, because he seems like a grandfather on whom you can depend."
I asked Mitzna what kind of Israel he would want to create. "I want to see Israel without the burden of the territories, signing an agreement with the Palestinians, returning to development. I want us to be welcome guests in the free world, to build a state with a majority of Jews that takes care of minorities - to be a community which the world admires for its achievements."
Good for Israel, good for Palestinians, good for the world. Very hard to achieve.