Tuesday, August 13, 2002
What explains the sudden enthusiasm for Amram Mitzna?
For who are not Israeli politics junkies, Avram Mitzna is the mayor of Haifa who has suddenly announced for the chairmanship of the Labor Party and who, instantly, took a commanding lead in the polls over the previous leading contenders, current leader and Defense Minister Binyamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer and perennial leader-aspirant Chaim Ramon. Being mayor of Haifa is roughly the equivalent of being mayor of San Francisco: it's a decent sized city with a diverse population, a highly liberal and left-wing politics, a large professional class, a high tech industry, beautiful coast and majestic mountains. It's a lovely place, really. Mitzna has a reputation of having been a good mayor, and is known for his ties to business, particularly high-tech. He's in many ways the perfect yuppie candidate. His views on "the situation" seem highly conventional for the moderate left: he wants a solution, he wants it now, he's willing to talk to anyone on the other side, including Arafat, and if no one on the other side will play ball then he wants to take his ball elsewhere by unilaterally drawing a border and withdrawing behind it. Chaim Ramon is an advocate of unilateral withdrawal, and Yossi Beillin is an advocate of unconditional negotiations, so it's not like Mitzna is bringing any new ideas to the table. So why is he suddenly popular in his party?
I think there are two reasons. The main reason is that he's a new face. Israelis are disgusted with their politicians in general and with the Labor Party in particular. They think that all these guys are spending their time jockeying for position and advancing their careers and that none of them care about the national interest. There was a poll a couple of months ago showing Sharon to be the most popular politician among Labor voters; that is due only in part Sharon's combination of stout resistance and relative restraint in dealing with the Palestinians; it also reflects the fact that, to some extent, Sharon has stood above petty politics, making real sacrifices of his preferred policy in order to hold together his national unity government. Mitzna is viewed as having made his decision to throw his hat in from genuine patriotic feeling, out of loyalty to the Israeli people and loyalty to the Labor party. Moreover, Mitzna has actually run something: he's been mayor of a major city. It's hard to recall, here in America, how rare that is in a parliamentary system where the executive is chosen from the legislature, and the only executive experience most Prime Ministers have when they come into office is in having run one or more ministries. In any event, So Mitzna had the right combination of experience (practical) and inexperience (absense from national politics). By contrast, most Labor politicians are viewed as naked opportunists, and they have been around the block too many times to be "reintroduced" to the Israeli public. Ramon in particular is despised for his transparent maneuvering, and Ben-Eliezer will always be tainted on the one hand by his ugly battle with Avraham Burg for the party leadership and on the other by his over-close relationship with Sharon, the sense that his only purpose is to be a plausible leader in a national unity government, and that he could not lead the party in opposition.
And this brings up the secondary reason. Mitzna is the only current candidate who embodies a vision of what the Labor Party is supposed to be. The Labor Party is, needless to say, no longer the party of labor. The working class is more likely to vote for Likud, which is Israel's dominant populist party. While security questions continue to dominate, there are other issues - religious, economic, social, etc. - that are deeply important to the Israeli electorate. Haifa is one vision for what Israel can be, and Mitzna embodies that vision: of a multi-cultural, relaxed, highly educated society with a vibrant economy and a strong social safety net. Mitzna would turn Labor into Israel's dominant liberal party: he would be more pro-business than pro-labor, would put a strong emphasis on bringing accountability and more money to education, and his unilateralism on the security front would similarly suit a liberal, pro-business line: the territories are a losing proposition, so cut your losses. This is a very plausible vision for the future of the Labor Party. It is less clear that it is a vision for Labor majority. Some 25% of the country is traditionally observant or ultra-Orthodox; 20% is Arab; and the proverbial Iraqi greengrocer will stand to gain little from Mitzna's program - most likely his taxes will go up to pay for better education for the children of professionals. But Labor's problem right now is that it has no identity at all, so even an overly narrow identity would be something of an improvement. Historically, Labor has represented the Establishment: the class and ethnic group that built the country and was born to rule it. Likud, the populist party, represented the outsiders. But all this has been scrambled, and Israeli voters are now showing less party loyalty than they ever have in their history. There is a faction within the Likud camp - men like Dan Meridor and Meir Sheetrit - who embody the center better, if anything, than their counterparts in Labor. And the utter failure of the Labor program vis-a-vis the Palestinians has left the public distrustful of the party in general.
Labor needs to establish a new identity for itself, a set of ideas and base receptive to them from which to expand and make a case for itself as the governing party. It can't do that with its current leadership. Hence the Mitzna boomlet. But in the short-term, it doesn't matter who leads Labor. In the next elections they are going to get massacred.