Israel's Labor Party Chooses New Leader to Challenge Likud in January

A former general and newcomer to national politics easily won an election Tuesday to lead the Labor Party, boosting hopes that he will bring the party back to power in general elections.

While surveys had indicated Amram Mitzna would win the Labor primary, polls also pointed to Sharon's Likud party winning the most seats in Jan. 28 elections, benefiting from the Israeli public's shift to the right after two years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Mitzna said that if elected as Israel's leader, he will reverse Sharon's course by withdrawing Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and resuming negotiations with the Palestinians.

"The Labor Party is embarking on a new path to present the Israeli public a real alternative," he said after early results were announced.

Nearly complete results from the Tuesday voting gave Mitzna 54 percent and incumbent party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer 37 percent.

Ben-Eliezer conceded defeat but said he would keep his supporters together, hinting that he would continue to challenge Mitzna's supremacy from inside the party. He gave Mitzna his support in the election campaign.

Legislator Haim Ramon was a distant third with 7 percent. Voter turnout was a record high 65 percent.

Ben-Eliezer's reputation among many Labor supporters was tarnished by his stint as defense minister in Sharon's "national unity" government. During his 20-month tenure, Ben-Eliezer oversaw military strikes against Palestinian militants. He resigned last month

Ben-Eliezer has said Mitzna's dovish stance would "take us further to the left and keep us as the opposition for a long time."

Mitzna said he would not join a new unity government under the same formula that joined Labor with Likud in the past, but said he would consider a coalition if Likud accepts his positions on disengaging from the West Bank and Gaza and dismantling settlements.

"If we can make unity around separation from the Palestinians, OK," he said. "But to go back to the Likud government of 2001-2002, no way in the world."

About 120,000 registered Labor members were eligible to vote.

Sharon called an early election at the beginning of November after Labor left the government in a fight over funding for Jewish settlements. Sharon is battling Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Likud leadership, which will be decided in a primary next week.

Mitzna, 57, was already looking ahead to January's election and his top priorities in office.

"There's no reason in the world for us to be in the Gaza Strip," he said Tuesday morning as he toured party branches in the Tel Aviv area. "We will put our forces around Gaza, around the fence, protecting Israel."

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said the election was an internal Israeli matter but that Palestinians "welcome any Israeli leader who is going to be committed to make peace with us and work according to the signed agreements."

Mitzna said a Gaza withdrawal wouldn't depend on negotiations with the Palestinians, but that he also intended to resume talks without conditions.

Mitzna acknowledged he might lose in January but said his election as party leader would give Labor a stronger showing in parliament, allowing it to be a "fighting opposition" if it didn't win office.

Peace talks collapsed nearly two years ago, and Sharon has refused to resume negotiations with the Palestinians unless the violence ends.