Amram Mitzna headshot - Alon Ron - July 2011
Amram Mitzna. Photo by Alon Ron
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His voice is soft and quiet, monotonic and calming, almost soporific, but the content slashes through it like a well-honed knife. Amram Mitzna, who recently joined the race for the leadership of the rising-from-the-dead Labor Party, has no doubt: He is the worthiest of the contenders to become the next chairman. And just before the race enters its intensive lap, Mitzna has a few words to say about the other familiar figures who are running against him. His words could ignite a conflagration in a party which sometimes seems to be incapable of getting through a day in its life without a mass brawl.

"Maybe Amir Peretz thinks he can rehabilitate the party," Mitzna says in reference to one of the leading candidates. "He has a worldview that garners votes that none of us gets from the periphery, from the right wing. I think it's a fairy tale."

"I am constantly rebuked for resigning as party chairman in 2003," he continues. "In contrast, another candidate - namely, Peretz - stayed on [as chairman] until he was effectively ousted. I did not wait to be ousted or to become a total failure. I said, 'People, I am taking responsibility.'"

Did you expect Peretz to resign as defense minister in the wake of the disappointing outcome of the Second Lebanon War in 2006?

Mitzna: "The answer is yes. Peretz, despite the limitations he himself cited, failed in his role as minister of defense in the war in Lebanon. There is no doubt of that, but now the bride is being prettified retroactively."

Just a few weeks ago, when Mitzna announced that he was going to run, polls showed that with him as chairman, Labor would win the most seats in future Knesset elections, many more than with the other candidates. Since then, the list of registered party members who will choose the next leader has been finalized, and things did not go Mitzna's way: Peretz, who was thought to be lost after his short and failed term as defense minister, succeeded in signing up the largest number of members, more than 20,000, and became overnight a candidate with the same potential as MK Isaac Herzog and MK Shelly Yachimovich.

"That's the greatest absurdity of all," Mitzna says of the disparity between the number of members signed up by Peretz and his standing. "In all the polls he gets the lowest number of seats of any of the candidates, and in fact comes in last."

Then, a few days after the conclusion of the voter-registration campaign, Amit Segal from Channel 2 News reported on suspicions of irregularities during the drive, whose results showed that the number of registered members had tripled - ostensibly due to double registrations, vote 'contractors,' confused people who didn't know they were signing up to join the party and so forth.

At 8 P.M. last Wednesday, Mitzna strolled casually along Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, on his way to meeting a group of young supporters. He got to the venue without a chauffeur, aides or bodyguards. Once there, the bearded former mayor of Haifa complained to the audience that something very improper was going on - and then added that he, Yachimovich, Herzog and businessman Erel Margalit "are competing more or less for the same group" of Labor voters. He described that group as "more ideological and more concerned." He left Peretz's supporters outside the controversial categorization. The day before, in a meeting with party veterans in Givatayim, he described that particular group as coming from "another planet."

Don't Peretz's supporters, most of whom are Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent ) constitute an ideological public? Is your subtext disdainful of Mizrahim?

"Absolutely and definitely not. My whole intention in the words 'another planet' was to say that certain phenomena come from a different political country, from a different political culture, irrespective of ethnic background. When I came to Yeruham [a southern town where Mitzna served as appointed mayor for five years], half the population came out to see the alien from outer space. One woman said, 'Bring us more left-wing Ashkenazim, we love them.' Someone else said, 'He comes from another planet.' To claim that I have anything against Mizrahim is arrant nonsense. Amir Peretz called me a 'political parasite.' I could claim that the origin of that term is racist, harking back to the description of Eastern European Ashkenazim as 'parasites.'"

What is your opinion of the Labor's primaries system, which determine the party leader?

"The primaries are a mechanism that corrupts - there is no doubt of that."

In what way?

"It is corrupting because on the date set for the primaries every candidate brings a chorus of cheerleaders who are already gone the next day. The system of a mass membership drive ahead of elections creates an opening for people who have no connection with the Labor Party, people who have no interest in it, as well as people who do have an interest in the party but due to things like bribery, money and so on. I have personal knowledge of people who get money for every signed registration form they bring."

Vote contractors?

"Indeed. A guy like that says to my guy, 'Give me the 100 registration forms you're submitting, I will submit them for you. After all, they will vote for you anyway, but I get money for each signed form.' This phenomenon makes the candidate for party leader open to extortion."

Which of the camps is the most notorious in this regard?

"It's not from my camp, that I can tell you for sure."

Is it the Peretz camp, which registered the most members?

"Yes, Amir Peretz registered the most people."

What you are saying is that people who will not vote for Labor in the Knesset elections will take part in choosing the party leader. Why pay them money?

"You are pressured to do a favor for a friend, it's hard to refuse, and there are cases in which they get the money back, under the table or on the table."

So you are running in a system in which you have no trust.

"I am running in a system about which I am very skeptical, and I am convinced that the real solution is to hold open primaries."

What you are saying is that people who vote Likud or vote Shas become momentary Labor Party members.

"People who vote for everything. If I am a popular fellow, say in Tel Aviv, in discotheques or whatever - I sign up 30,000 people and can theoretically win. In Tel Aviv there has for years been a large bloc of young people who once spearheaded the trend to vote for the Pensioners Party and then backed Dov Khenin [an MK for Hadash] for mayor there. In our case, I think that Shelly Yachimovich brought in large groups of young people whose connection to Labor is dubious. There are Labor Party members from a certain moshav - 100 to 150 people - but in the Knesset elections you discover that only five of them vote Labor. It's the same in other places, too. It's a corruption of the democratic process."

Niche laws

As long as we're on the subject of Shelly Yachimovich, what do you think of her candidacy and of the parliamentary battles she fought in recent years against big capital?

"I have a high regard for Yachimovich's battles and for the legislation she pushed through, but I think that sometimes she throws out the baby with the bathwater."

What do you mean?

"For her, everyone who has a checkbook in his pocket and more than NIS 100,000 available in the bank is a target and is corrupt. In the end, it's actually the tycoons who create the most jobs - the same tycoons she attacks. I think she has some sort of black-and-white approach, a kind of knee-jerk assault on everything that moves in that regard."

After serving for five years as the Interior Ministry-appointed mayor of Yeruham, Mitzna has no feelings of inferiority toward Yachimovich, the vigorous lawmaker, when it comes to helping the weak.

"I come from a somewhat different place than she does, a place of doing," he says. "Not only in Yeruham but also in my 10 years as mayor of Haifa. That makes me no less socially oriented than her. The great legislators in the Knesset are always those who get specific, niche laws enacted - like the law to provide chairs for the checkout girls in the Super-Pharm chain, laws about which there is a wide consensus, because they don't cost money. But there are also injustices in the Israeli society, which Shelly does not deal with: the foreign workers, the minorities, the Israeli Arabs. She is just not there. And the whole political-security realm, a central area, no matter how you turn it over, doesn't exist from her point of view."

And what about Isaac "Buji" Herzog?

"Buji is a true civil servant, and I think he was a fine and industrious social affairs minister, but he is not perceived by the public as a charismatic leader with a backbone, as someone who can lead. If I weren't running, he would have a good chance to be Labor chairman. He knows that and it really riles him. Overall, what are Buji and Yachimovich both saying? 'People, the Labor Party is not going to be in a leadership position or at the center of the stage.' They are conceding the contest in advance and are talking mainly about rehabilitation. My view is that the chairman of the Labor Party has to be a leader with the potential to be prime minister. I am the only one who can get a double-digit number of Knesset seats for the party, whereas if any of the other candidates become the leader, Labor will be doomed to become a niche party."

And you are qualified to be prime minister and want to be?

"Yes."

'Shimon is to blame'

People who heard I was going to interview you told me: "Mitzna is a very nice guy, he speaks quietly and logically, but he's unsuitable. He's not charismatic enough, he's too soft, he puts you to sleep." What do you say to those people?

"I hear that all over the place. I will say the following: Someone who spent 30 years in the army, and not in logistics, not in the canteen, not in the Israel Defense Forces orchestra, but in all the combat posts, in every one of which soldiers followed me, both in war and in the events between the wars - there is no way that a person who holds those positions can't be charismatic or lack leadership. It's true that my language and my whole way of looking at things is humanistic, liberal, democratic, considerate, that I notice injustice or the undermining of values. That is who I am. But we saw where charismatic, strong-armed leaders like [Ariel] Sharon, like [Ehud] Barak, like Bibi Netanyahu led us."

This is Mitzna's second time around in Labor. The first round was quite an embarrassment. In 2002, he ran against Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Haim Ramon for Labor's leadership and defeated them handily. Labor under Mitzna went on to win 19 seats in the general elections [in the current Knesset it had 13, until Barak left to form his own faction, Atzmaut]. Then, a few months after he refused to enter the Sharon government, he announced his resignation as party leader.

"I was elected at the end of November 2002, contrary to the wishes of the majority of the party's Knesset faction, who supported Fuad [Ben-Eliezer] or Ramon," Mitzna explains, analyzing the fiasco. "As a result, I was never accepted. Two months later, we were plunged into general elections, with Sharon running against me and the party not accepting my leadership, not supporting me, not helping - in fact, interfering - amid an election campaign. You are charging up the hill and the soldiers in the armored personnel carrier, instead of shooting outside, at the enemy, open fire inside. It was incredible. I felt I was alone on the front line."

Why did you resign the leadership within a few months?

"My analysis of the situation was that either I would be kicked out or I would turn myself into a dishrag."

What happened to Labor in the past few years? What made it deteriorate into the irrelevant corner in which it now finds itself?

"At the ideological level, Labor has lost its identity. If originally its identity was socially oriented, and aspired to regularize our relations with our neighbors in the Middle East and achieve a territorial compromise with the Palestinians - since 1977 [when Likud first came to power] it has sought every possible way to enter every coalition, no matter what type. The rationale that has guided its leaders since then has been, 'We are responsible people, we must on no account allow them, the right wing, to manage the country alone.' The feeling was that we have to be part of the action, because we cannot cut ourselves off from the udders of power - because being in power means jobs, influence, certainly the symbols of power that go with it.

"The Labor Party, which was actually supposed to provide a social-welfare security net, which should have shunned privatization at any price and looked after the interests of the middle class - instead hightailed it away and lost its identity in the process. The second problem has to do with the party's internal DNA, in which democracy slid into a state of anarchy."

Is one of the reasons for Labor's deterioration in the past couple of decades the fact that for most of the time it was led by Shimon Peres, who blocked the way to worthy successors?

"Shimon Peres is definitely responsible for that. When you say blocked, it sounds like a passive action, whereas Peres was not passive. The truth is that people did not grow in his shadow. His roots drank up everything all around, and did not allow anyone to grow. He did not even let his confidants grow."

Was it that he couldn't bear the thought that someone else might become chairman?

"Peres is one of the people who actually made a hefty contribution to the Labor Party's deterioration, both by not allowing successors to spring up and by always wanting to enter every coalition. The peak came, of course, when he left Labor for Kadima, a move that I find absolutely scandalous. Here was someone who had been present at the birth of the Labor Party, who was a leading figure in Hanoar Haoved youth movement and in the land-settlement movement, and he bolts to another party only because he is insulted by Amir Peretz."

Was Peres' act a betrayal of Labor?

"Yes, yes, absolutely."

The Sayeret syndrome

A few months ago, just before he left the Labor Party, Ehud Barak carried out a secret blitzkrieg in which he invited Mitzna for a series of personal talks in which he hinted that he viewed him as his future successor as party leader. "He wanted to crown me," Mitzna relates.

As with many other politicians, Mitzna has been disappointed in Barak, whom he has known for decades, since the time when they were both in the army.

"Barak rose through the ranks by using his skills and his intellectual, verbal and analytical capabilities," Mitzna notes. "He always impressed the rank above him. He understood that the group above him would decide his next stage, and he always worked hard there. The rank below always found him a lot less impressive."

In what way does Barak resemble his ally Netanyahu?

"There is a syndrome connected with former soldiers in Sayeret Matkal [ultra-elite commando unit]. True, they are soldiers and there is a military hierarchy, but they meet with prime ministers and defense ministers for breakfast, and things go to their head a little. Recently we had the episode involving Lieut. Col Boaz Harpaz [a friend of former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and the forger of a document which allegedly tried to tip the scales in the appointment of the next chief of staff]. Suddenly it turns out - and it's true - that he and his ilk had an open door everywhere, not only to prime ministers. If Operation X was planned, there was no ceiling on money, on means; if there's something [such people] need that's on the moon - they go and buy it, and it's all secret and classified. And there is no oversight.

"What am I getting at? That it's not by chance that Bibi and Ehud [Barak], who came through those hothouses, have such flagrant scorn for public funds. It's absolutely amazing! Netanyahu takes 10 cabinet ministers to Italy - do you have any idea how much that costs? The same is true also with regard to bigger decisions, like the separation fence, which is built, then moved and so on, at a waste of hundreds of millions of shekels and all for strictly political considerations. The order of priorities that the two put forward is also out of whack with reality. In the years in which Barak has been defense minister, the defense budget has thrown off all restraint, simply cast off all restraint. Incredible. We're talking billions. I don't have to tell you how much money is needed for the library in Kiryat Shmona and for Yeruham - Yeruham, you know, is going to crash. Their decadence and aloofness are problematic. How can Barak and Bibi grasp the public revolt over the price of cottage cheese, which is a fight between NIS 5 and NIS 8?"

Have you visited Barak's apartment in Akirov Towers?

"Yes, and it upset me very much. It really bothered me. I also visited the homes of [Yitzhak] Rabin and Peres, who lived in Ramat Aviv. Rabin had a penthouse which was also not inexpensive, but it's still something else entirely. I think Ehud was deprived, growing up in a kibbutz, where everything was owned in common. By the way, he always had a weakness for things like that: pens, watches, gadgets, cars. It's a matter of personality and also has to do with the period when he served in Sayeret Matkal. It was 'everything goes' there. If the Paratroops had a rifle like that, they would get a better one, and if everyone had regular army gear they wanted a protective vest."

Is Barak able to influence Netanyahu? Is his presence in the coalition necessary?

"I told Barak personally that he did not actualize or exploit his influence on Bibi in any way. Not in anything. Not in political matters, not in security matters, but also not in the realm of social welfare. Barak trapped himself and became a totally useless fifth wheel."

Where do you think Netanyahu is leading us?

"He is dangerous for Israel. He is gambling on the ability to gain time, and in the past two years that gamble has pushed Israel into a trap in the form of the declaration of a Palestinian state in September. Arik Sharon favored the method of making the situation in the territories irreversible. Wherever possible, he stuck settlements on every hill and under every tree, in order to create a Gordian knot. But when he reached the Prime Minister's Office he started to understand. I have no doubt that if it were not for what happened to him, we would have pulled out of Judea and Samaria. Though I don't know how he would have done it, because Sharon left Gaza in the stupidest way possible, unilaterally and without an agreement, which had the effect of bringing Hamas to power. Sharon was also the kingmaker for Hezbollah: He was the catalyst for the organization's establishment when he initiated the first Lebanon war."

Returning to Netanyahu: How can he get out of the trap?

"The [vote on the] declaration in the General Assembly can be prevented by sitting down for negotiations tomorrow morning, accompanied by confidence-building measures: a total freeze of the settlements, release of Palestinian prisoners, removal of checkpoints."

The major candidate who poses a threat to Netanyahu is Tzipi Livni. Do you think she is qualified to be prime minister?

"My impression as an outside observer - and also the impression I get from people who meet with her and are in her close circles - is that she does not have the heft, the backbone, the qualifications needed to be a leader. The party she leads is not a serious opposition in any area. It's a party with no backbone and no identity. The MKs who are under her responsibility sometimes cooperate in legislation sponsored by the party of Avigdor Lieberman, whom I see as having totalitarian traits and spearheading racist legislation."

If elected, will you join a government in which Lieberman is a member?

"The fact that Labor [under Peretz and Barak] joined a coalition with Lieberman is an inexpiable sin. I will not sit with him in the same coalition."

Two letters

Amram Mitzna was born in 1945 on Kibbutz Dovrat to parents who came from Germany. The family later moved to Kiryat Haim, a suburb of Haifa. Mitzna was drafted in 1963, serving in the Armored Corps, and four years later fought in bloody battles in the Six-Day War. At that time he was an operations officer with the rank of lieutenant in the 79th Battalion of the corps. His tank was hit in the battle for the Rafah outposts and he was wounded in the face and shoulders but went on fighting. Later that day he was wounded twice more, but kept going, until he was evacuated to hospital that night. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts.

Looking back with an analytical eye, he says, "The outcome of that war, in which I was a young, impassioned and enthusiastic officer constitutes the most dramatic negative turning point in Israel's history."

What do you think today about people like Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who understood from the outset the scale of the disaster entailed in the occupation of the territories?

"They are people who saw reality correctly and had the courage to say what they thought."

In the Yom Kippur War of 1973 Mitzna was in command of a battalion that was sent to the most brutal killing field in Sinai; it fought in the lethal battle over the Chinese Farm. Again he was wounded, but continued to lead the battalion, earning a citation from the chief of staff. He thought then and still thinks that Ariel Sharon was part of the collapse of the leadership in that period. His own collision with Sharon came in the Lebanon war of 1982. Sharon, defense minister at the time, lured Prime Minister Menachem Begin into launching an operation in Lebanon; Mitzna received an emergency appointment as chief of staff of the forces in the eastern sector. "I understood that they were deceiving the government," he says.

After the massacre in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps - when Mitzna heard Sharon say that the IDF had been involved in similar cases in the past - he wrote to Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan to say that he had lost his confidence in the defense minister. That precedent-setting act almost cost Mitzna his career. He was summoned to an urgent meeting with Sharon.

"I went into the meeting with Sharon with my throat dry," he recalls. "Sharon told me that I had the morality of an egoist and I told him what I thought about the way the war had been managed. He got angry and stalked out." In the end, after Begin's intervention, Mitzna wrote a second letter.

"Begin effectively forbade Sharon from throwing me out of the army," he says, concluding his account of the convoluted saga. He adds that there is a similarity between the two Lebanon wars: "All the blunders in war happen when the top level, the triangle of command - the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff - leads [the country] to adventurism."

In the 1982 Lebanon war, he notes, "Prime Minister Begin gave absolute and total support to the army chiefs. He also did not exactly understand the meaning of the military moves. Sharon, who understood that Begin did not understand, always brought him large-scale maps, of the kind where your finger covers an area of 20 square kilometers. Sharon had an insane agenda in the war. He and Raful [Rafael Eitan] were not friends. But when Raful was asked why he didn't say anything, he replied, 'As long as Arik Sharon is killing Arabs, that's fine and I keep quiet.'"

What happened in the Second Lebanon War?

"Ehud Olmert has a poor understanding of the army and of military tactics. At the same time, I think he is the least responsible of those in the command triangle at the time, in which the two others were Amir Peretz and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. I fault Olmert mainly for appointing Peretz defense minister. I believe it was an act of extreme irresponsibility on Peretz's part to assume that post. I was very concerned when Peretz was appointed defense minister. Very worried. You needn't have been chief of staff, but you can't be totally lacking in a security background and military experience. And you know, there was one defense minister with only a civilian background whom everyone acclaims, namely Moshe Arens. I was head of the operations department when he was defense minister; I saw him in action and I was not impressed."

Who is most to blame of the three for the failure in the Second Lebanon War?

"In my view, Dan Halutz, the former chief of staff. He, too, as in a Greek tragedy, was led to a place at which he could only fail and cause others to fail. Halutz is very intelligent and verbal, but Israel cannot have a chief of staff who does not come from the ground forces. When you ask Halutz how long it takes, say, for a brigade to move from sector A to sector B, or that has to prepare a night mission, he doesn't know, he never saw it with his own eyes, he never did it, he never sat in the turret of a tank. So, foolish decisions were made, such as not to send in ground forces and instead to try to finish the thing with an air blitz. There is no such animal. The chief of staff before Halutz, Moshe Ya'alon, also failed to prepare the army for that war, but instead made cuts and changed longstanding arrangements with an eye to the territories, and with an army that did not have enough grit."

Divided Jerusalem

In 1987, Mitzna was appointed GOC Central Command. A few months later, the first intifada erupted. "That was where I acquired my political awareness," he says. "Yitzhak Rabin, who was the defense minister at the time, and 'little me' understood during that period that it was impossible to defeat this thing with force."

Mitzna was a member of the group that took part in the talks which engendered the Geneva Initiative for a solution to the conflict. "It is possible to reach an agreement on borders and execute it on the basis of the 1967 lines and a territorial swap, with the issues of the refugees and Jerusalem postponed to a later time, with no realization of the right of return, Jerusalem divided and the Holy Basin [in and around the Old City] being given international status." Mitzna is also in favor of returning the Golan Heights in a peace agreement with Syria.

After his retirement from the army, in 1993, Mitzna was elected mayor of Haifa, a position he held for almost 10 years, taking some harsh criticism from the press along the way. One allegation was that he promoted projects initiated by his friend, local tycoon Gad Zeevi, who is currently on trial on a charge of trying to acquire control of Bezeq Telecommunications fraudulently. The green organizations dubbed Mitzna "the mayor of developers and contractors."

He left the mayor's office in 2002 to run for the leadership of the Labor Party, and after that bizarre episode resigned from the Knesset in 2005 in order to become mayor of Yeruham. It was precisely the fact that he spent a lengthy period in that remote town that made it possible for him to try to regain the Labor chairmanship. For five years, Mitzna resided in the town, from Sunday morning through Wednesday evening, equipped with a box of meatballs in gravy prepared by his wife, or some other dish.

"I had barely known where Yeruham was," he admits. "I discovered that there is tremendous state neglect in the periphery. The solution lies in investment in education, education, education. That is the way to close gaps. It's the biggest closer of gaps."

Since returning to the political hippodrome, Mitzna has met with many well-known figures in an attempt to entice them to join the battered Labor Party. They include the CEO of Teva Pharmaceuticals Shlomo Yanai, as well as industrialist Shraga Brosh and senior physician Dr. Gabi Barabash.

"If you want to take a party that is on the ER operating table and treat it with aggressive surgery, like a kind of electric shock, you can't do it by more or less of the same," he explains.

"Accordingly, I say that at least for the next elections, as an emergency directive, there should be a mechanism - to be decided by democratic means - that will create one track for the existing MKs, for the Labor Party veterans, those who are in politics and who can muster support. And in addition a green track for people we want to recruit, leaders who I think have been bitten by the bug, but who don't want to run in primaries in some godforsaken hole. There are many functionaries who are telling me, 'Be quiet, don't say that.' Some of them will make a lot of noise. It was exactly the same back then. In other words, if you can't be innovative - you know, if you look at the bigger picture, at the strategic picture, the labor movement, and by that I mean not just the Labor Party, but the whole movement, it hasn't succeeded in moving ahead with the times in anything." W