TEL AVIV, Israel, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna entered the hall like a high ranking army officer about to brief his senior commanders on the eve of an operation.
He walked at a pace that allowed him to examine the room, shook hands with Knesset members who occupied front row seats, chatted briefly with a few others, then sat down to hear a briefing to his representatives in the Labor Party's polling stations; what they must do, and what they must not, to prevent ballot stuffing and other attempts to forge Tuesday's primary for party leadership.
Verify the ballot box is empty before the voting begins, they were told. No one goes to the toilet, to phone or eat before being replaced, the directives said.
It was his last public appearance in Tel Aviv before the voting began. Yet, there were no balloons. No cheering youngsters. Just posters showing him in a denim blue shirt with a red tie. His trademark is his beard, thin and white along the temples, black and gray along the jaws and chin. It used to be all black, when he was a general, but that was a decade ago.
Public opinion polls predict a landslide, with Mitzna getting more than half the votes, Labor's incumbent Chairman, former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer winning just over a third, and former Interior Minister Haim Ramon trailing behind with some 10 percent.
Mitzna, 57, is running on a distinct dovish ticket. For over a year Labor was led by Ben-Eliezer who presented dovish ideas but seemed to work hand in glove with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, of the Likud.
Mitzna wanted Labor out of the government and presenting a clear alternative to the Likud's policies.
Sharon, for example, insists there be no negotiations with the Palestinians as log as fighting rages. Mitzna, however, upholds an idea Israel's founders had followed half a century ago. "You need force to fight terror as though there is no one to talk to, but continue talking as though there is no terror," he said. Otherwise extremists can veto the talks, he maintained.
One of his early addresses was beside the spot, in Tel Aviv, where an extremist Jew murdered the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in an attempt to scuttle the peace process.
If any place represents the bitter differences between hawks and doves, that is probably it.
"The Palestinians are the real enemy," he said.
"Bravo," an elderly man called out.
"They don't have to be an enemy," a woman in a polka dotted dress retorted. An accordionist played a well-known song, "I don't have another country."
Mitzna said that if elected, "I will first of all call for a return to the negotiating table without prior conditions."
"Look where we deteriorated to," he continued, alluding to the high number of Israeli casualties in the intifada.
If peace talks succeed, he will aim for a permanent settlement. If the effort at an agreement proves futile he would go for a unilateral separation, "establish a security border, a fence, a wall in accordance with Israel's interests only."
In an interview with the Haaretz newspaper, published Tuesday, Mitzna said he would spend a year trying to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.
If he then opts for a unilateral step, he would remove all the settlements that are beyond the line he would set.
"Arrangement would be made in Jerusalem to ensure that most of the Palestinian population will not be under Israeli rule," he added. He also advocated, "an immediate withdrawal from the Gaza Strip."
Mitzna's spokesman, Onn Levy, confirmed the quotes.
"Force, and more force is a response of the weak ones. We are strong, so we can make concessions. Take risks," Mitzna has said in rallies.
"We are very courageous in war. Let's be courageous also in peace," he advocated.
In order to exist Israel must be "a democracy, with a solid Jewish majority." That does not go with controlling millions of Palestinians, he implied.
Yet, he has been somewhat vague on whether he would seek to negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "The Palestinian population knows well where the present leadership brought it, and what it decides shall be. We shall sit with authorized Palestinian delegates, providing they really want peace," he said.
His rivals argued he was just an inexperienced novice in national politics. Running a city like Haifa -- he has been its mayor since 1993 -- does not qualify him for running a state. The difference between the two its like the difference between driving a mini-minor car and a semi-trailer, Ramon said.
Mitzna rejected the criticism. "Israel is the only state in the world where someone who tries, tries, and fails -- says he has experience," he argued. He blamed Ramon for negotiating the coalition agreement that led Labor into Sharon's government and blasted Ben-Eliezer for the staying in the government despite its failures.
Mitzna indeed made mistakes that experienced politicians know to avoid.
One of his first moves in the three months campaign was to organize a rally in Kibbutz Yakum, a 20-minute drive from Tel Aviv.
His supporters laid out some 1,000 chairs beside the eucalyptus trees and had more chairs stacked nearby, but only a few dozen people showed up. The next day's newspapers showed a field of empty white chairs and suggested Mitzna's meteoric rise was bursting.
Like a veteran commander displeased with a maneuver his unit exercised, he called for another rally, at the very same spot, two weeks later.
Busses and cars brought supporters, as many seats were out, all were taken, and latecomers had to stand.
At Monday evening's meeting, in Tel Aviv, his aides laid out 65 chairs. They added more when people came.
Mitzna's appearance brought old Laborites back to the party. Yigal Reuveni, 71, a retired tank corps officer said in an interview he had quit Labor when Ben-Eliezer was elected chairman.
"I returned, in a hurry, when Mitzna announced his candidacy so that I could be active and vote," Reuveni said. "His views suit mine, exactly," he explained.
Ben-Eliezer or Ramon seem to be more jovial, friendly. Israel is a country whose Prime Minister Sharon is known as "Arik," Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as "Bibi," and Ben-Eliezer as "Fuad." But Mitzna is -- "Mitzna."
Yet, "he looks like a nice, clean honest guy," Hebrew University Political Scientist, Gideon Rahat, observed.
"There is something attractive in his somewhat distant personality," commentator Yaron London suggested in Yediot Aharonot. Mitzna's conduct suggests a person not involved in trickery, and "his ability to say "I don't know yet" is rare in an arena where know-it-all politicians are around," London added.
Monday evening Mitzna made a short speech to his supporters. He appeared in an open necked blue shirt, his watch hanging loosely round his wrist. He noted that during his campaign he met old friends and got to know some new people whom he appreciated. "I am talking with the utmost emotion," he said, and no one would have noticed it had he not said so. There was nothing in his voice or body language to suggest it.
But then, he, the seemingly cold man whose parents came from Germany and who was raised in a kibbutz, is the one who hung his children's drawings near his computer at his army headquarters. Mitzna was then a major general charged with putting down the first Intifada in the West Bank.
He spent most of his military career in the armored corps that he joined in 1963.
He was a battalion operations officer in the 1967 war, injured his eye, hand and shoulder in the first day but remained on a tank. Suddenly he heard a body fall, looked down and saw his commander lying there headless, according to a book on that war.
Mitzna covered his commander's body with a map of the Sinai desert, continued fighting, and won the Medal of Valor.
In the 1973 war he commanded a tank battalion and took part in one of the worst battles of that war, near the Suez Canal. He was wounded, and Sharon who was division commander, recommended him for a Chief of General Staff citation.
Yet Mitzna rejected a suggestion he was courageous." I am a coward," he told a TV interviewer but added he knows when he must overcome fear.
If he wins the primary, and if Sharon wins the Likud primary as public opinion polls predict, the two will find themselves facing one another again.
During the 1982 Lebanon War Mitzna was a brigadier general, one of the commanders of a large force that faced the Syrians in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley. Sharon was the defense minister who masterminded the Lebanon War.
High-ranking officers were seething when they heard on the radio Sharon's speech to the Knesset, following the Sabra and Chatilla massacre in Beirut. Sharon denied responsibility.
Mitzna decided he has lost his confidence in Sharon and in protest, asked to go on leave. He outlined his criticism to the then-Prime Minister Menahem Begin. Sharon wanted to sack him, but Begin saved his job.