Sunday, January 09, 2011

Return Ticket For Two? Amram Mitzna & Aryeh Deri

Amram Mitzna is the Benny Begin of the Zionist left: upright, abstentious and unlikely to ever lead his ideological camp to political victory. The kibbutz-born Mitzna is a dovish ex-general who once clashed with defense minister Ariel Sharon over his reaction to the Lebanese Christian massacre of Palestinians during the 1982 Lebanon War. In 1987, Mitzna found himself the IDF's commanding officer in the West Bank at outbreak of the first intifada. Convinced that "force was not the answer," Mitzna took a leave of absence to study abroad. By 1993, post-army, he was elected mayor of Haifa.

As head of the Labor Party during the second intifada, Mitzna was vanquished by Sharon in the 2003 Knesset elections. He quit national politics in 2005 and soon accepted appointment as mayor of Yeruham, a beleaguered Negev development town, whose elected chief executive had been removed by authorities for corruption. The city's subsequent renewal is credited to Mitzna's hard work and talent for public administration. Now, at 65, Mitzna says he has "a burning urge to bring a change" to the country and is weighing a fresh run for the Labor party leadership.

In the meantime, another politician is making a comeback though not in his original party. Aryeh Deri, going on 52, came to Israel from Morocco at age nine, went on to learn Talmud at a prestigious Ashkenazi academy, and unlike many ultra-Orthodox youths went to the army. In 1986, Sephardic ex-chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef tapped Deri to head his fledgling Shas party where Deri honed his skills as a powerbroker. His career abruptly ended when he was convicted in 1999 of channeling tax money to party institutions.

Chastened and changed, Deri is poised to reenter politics, nowadays studying English and French to burnish his cosmopolitan credentials. Estranged from his nonagenarian mentor and despised by his successor Eli Yishai, Deri plans to form a new, populist, cross-sectoral and ideologically moderate party.

The men are a study in contrasts. Mitzna abandoned the Knesset to take personal responsibility for Labor's rout. Deri left kicking and screaming only because he was sent to prison. Mitzna is from the Ashkenazi elite; Deri from the Sephardi underclass. Deri is a political animal; Mitzna lacks the killer instinct. Deri is charismatic; Mitzna is humorless. Deri has the potential of capturing support well beyond his own ultra-Orthodox base and keeps his innate dovishness understated. His knack for friendships across the political spectrum adds to his appeal. Mitzna, in contrast, has embraced the far-fetched Geneva Initiative as his platform on the Palestinian issue and is unlikely to win over many not predisposed to his views.

Though Israeli elections are far off, Mitzna's return could still be a boon to the leaderless and rudderless Zionist left, while Deri's second coming could, ironically, undercut the very ethno-politics he practiced so well. Shas is going through an identity crisis with one dissident Knesset member, Haim Amsalam – who hopes to join forces with Deri -- asking how the party came to champion "distorted" ultra-Orthodox insularity at the expense of its original social mandate.

Labor is experiencing its own identity crisis. Critics complain party leader Ehud Barak has sold out by partnering with the Netanyahu government. Yet the welcome mat is not being rolled out for Mitzna. Avishay Braverman and Isaac Herzog, Labor moderates who want to replace Barak as party leader say Mitzna's dovishness will drive Labor voters to the center-left Kadima party. Inscrutable as he is unpopular, Barak has invited Mitzna to run for the party leadership. Does this mean Barak has abandoned the idea of running again? Or will he, ultimately, try to elbow out Braverman and Herzog before tackling Mitzna's challenge?

Yossi Kucik, a political strategist and former aide to Barak when he was premier, is working to create a left-wing amalgamation that would include Labor, the atrophied Meretz party and various engaging personalities to improve the left's prospects in the next election. That may prove a mission impossible. Would Mitzna be willing to campaign as a good government candidate with demonstrated implementation skills and downplay his discredited views on the "peace process?" Can Labor, which has essentially embraced neo-liberal economics, run in tandem with social-democratic Meretz? With Mitzna at the helm, polls show Labor capturing no more than the 13 seats it currently holds. Still, if next time out Mitzna is prepared to stay the course he could keep Labor in the opposition and mold it in his own image: principled, respected, and perennially out of power.

As for the repackaged Deri, he has no interest in remaining on the opposition benches. Polls show his new party would win at least eight Knesset seats at Shas's expense. Were he to succeed in building a truly broad-based party, odds are he could do considerably better yet and parlay his mandates into a strong presence around the cabinet table.

-- December 2010

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