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New Israeli Labor leader calls for party unity

Mitzna hugs a supporter at his Haifa headquarters after Tuesday's vote.
Mitzna hugs a supporter at his Haifa headquarters after Tuesday's vote.

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Amram Mitzna is elected to lead Israel's Labor Party. CNN's Jerrold Kessel reports (November 19)
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Israel will hold parliamentary elections January 28 to choose a new Knesset and prime minister. Tuesday, the Labor party chose its new leader and candidate for prime minister. Here is how Israeli elections work:
• Every Israeli citizen 18 and over is eligible to vote.
• Electorate casts votes for party instead of individual candidates.
• Parties get a percentage of the 120 seats in the Knesset equal to the percentage of the vote they received.
• Following the election, the president chooses a prime minister-designate who has 28 days to submit a list of government ministers.

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Labor Party members Tuesday chose a relative newcomer to national politics to lead them -- Amram Mitzna, a dovish former Israeli general who has vowed to withdraw Israeli forces from Gaza if elected prime minister in January.

In his victory speech at party headquarters, Mitzna called for a unified party to challenge the Likud party in the upcoming election.

"We shall march together shoulder to shoulder, together, as a unified leadership without camps, all of us as members of the Labor Party," Mitzna was quoted as saying in the Jerusalem Post.

"Let's work together in the campaign against the Likud, not only to change the government, but to create a new reality in Israel, another society."

According to the newspaper, the unofficial final results showed Mitzna -- the mayor of the port city of Haifa -- with 54 percent of the vote, beating out the incumbent Labor leader and former Israeli defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Ben-Eliezer had 37 percent of the vote, and Knesset member Haim Ramon had 7 percent.

In his concession, Ben-Eliezer said he had congratulated his successor and "told him that the voters had decided and that we are a party that respects the choice of the voters."

Ben-Eliezer also said he told Mitzna that "me and my camp will help you win the next election."

Ben-Eliezer's popularity among his party's members suffered because he joined with Sharon in a national unity government. Some Labor members took issue with his actions as defense minister when he oversaw military actions to respond to Palestinian militants.

Voters told pollsters they liked Mitzna because he is a new face and has promised to return Labor to its leftist origins. Mitzna has said he would not join a unity government with Sharon.

In an election-day campaign blitz, Mitzna said if elected prime minister, he would order a total Israeli evacuation from Gaza without delay.

He said Tuesday's vote by the 110,000 eligible Labor Party members indicated that Israelis understand that the tensions in the Middle East cannot be eased through Israeli military action and Palestinian terrorism.

"Two years of bloodshed and terrorism will, I think, bring the two sides back to the negotiation table with more real politics," Mitzna said.

Mitzna said he would immediately call on the Palestinian leadership to resume peace negotiations, picking up with proposals made by former President Clinton before he left office.

If there is no progress in those talks after one year, Mitzna said he would enforce security borders in the West Bank. And, he said, no Jewish settlement would remain on the eastern side of those borders.

Mitzna said he felt certain he could get Jewish settlers to go along with his plans.

Palestinian senior negotiator Saeb Erakat said that the Labor election was an "internal Israeli matter," but that he was encouraged by Mitzna's statements "concerning ending the occupation."

"We believe that the Israeli people deserve a leadership that acts on peace and reconciliation, and not a leadership that will take them on a road of settlements, occupation and violence," Erakat said.

Polls: Sharon's Likud likely winner

Despite Mitzna's pledges, polls show Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party is expected to be victorious January 28 when Israelis vote for prime minister.

Sharon is being challenged for leadership of Likud by his foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently accepted the position on the condition that new elections would be held in January.

Polls show Netanyahu trailing Sharon by a wide margin. Likud primaries will be held November 28.

Sharon's 20-month-old national unity coalition fell apart October 30 when the Labor Party, the faction with the largest number of seats, pulled out. The issue that precipitated the collapse was a dispute over funding in the 2003 budget for Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Labor and Ben-Eliezer insisted that some of the $150 million budgeted for Jewish settlements in the West Bank be diverted to social programs.

Labor's departure left Sharon's Likud bloc and the remaining coalition partners with 55 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Sharon was unable to cobble together a working majority without Labor and called for new elections.

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