Bahai News - Labors northern star
Labors northern star
Byline: Dan Williams
Friday, April 20, 2001 -- In spring 1967, 22-year-old Armored Corps
Captain Amram Mitzna was on standby with his tank company. War loomed
inevitable, and in those last days of tense indolence Mitzna made
a pact with his fellow officers: They would stop shaving until peace
between Israel and the Arabs was achieved.
Several bloody conflicts and more than a generation later, Mitzna
- now a retired general, the energetic head of Israel's third-largest
city, and a major political enigma - still sports a full beard.
As mayor of Haifa - the Israeli equivalent of governing California
or Texas - he has an ideal platform for such displays of discontent
with the state of national politics.
Two days before Ehud Barak announced he was quitting office in February,
Mitzna urged him to do so - on the front page of the daily Ma'ariv. The
article was composed as a gentle, second-person address to a " dear
friend." "Where did your sense of quality assurance go? Your
public integrity?" wrote Mitzna, Barak's former comrade in the army
top brass and confidant at Camp David. "You should do the right thing
now, and go home."
Such is Mitzna's standing in the Labor Party, Barak's own camp, that
his article was perceived as the prime minister's death knell. The mayor
was hosted on the popular television show Politica, where he defended his
attack on Barak while fellow Laborites on his panel grimly shook their
heads at his "treachery." Mitzna's point was simple: Barak had
promised peace, and failed to deliver; he had to go before the party lost
Yet it was while making an appearance on Haifa's local cable channel the
same day that Mitzna was caught off- guard. "You wrote in the paper about
the importance of keeping your integrity, and that's all well and good,"
one viewer put to him shrilly during the call-in segment of the show. "But
what about your integrity? What about the school in Neveh She'anan?"
The school in question was being shut down due to low attendance,
its pupils distributed among the other four schools in the midtown
Haifa neighborhood. With a hint of irritation, Mitzna reiterated the
need for such sound urban planning to the caller, who by then had
hung up or been disconnected. "A leader must know when to say 'no,
'" added the mayor in summation.
SUCH DECISIVENESS is natural to Mitzna, who as Army Central Command
chief in the late 1980s bore the brunt of the first Palestinian uprising,
or intifada, with remarkable success. Of trim build and medium height,
he maintains a reserve common among long-time military men, especially
when it comes to meeting unfamiliar journalists.
Yet he is referred to simply as "Mitzna" by friends and strangers
alike - reportedly even by his wife. And while his beard and glasses
give him an avuncular quality, they also render his face curiously
inscrutable, not least when he habitually slips dark lenses over his
spectacles while outdoors.
And he is outdoors often, starting with his daily 7 a.m. patrol of the
city. On this morning, Mitzna looks bleary-eyed and distracted, but still
manages to chat affably with his spokeswoman, public relations adviser, and
assistant, all of whom have piled into his white Chevrolet Malibu. They set
off from Mitzna's home on the top of Mount Carmel, the mayor slumped in his
seat as he guides the car evenly down toward Haifa's bay. Spotting
something on the tarmac, he suddenly perks up.
"Report that carcass to sanitation," he orders his retinue. There is
mumbling into a cellphone from the back seat, and the dead cat's fate is
Haifa is a remarkably clean city, especially when compared to Tel Aviv
and Jerusalem. Having been rocked last year by revelations of the
carcinogenic pollution in the Kishon River, which debouches into Haifa bay,
Mitzna made special efforts to have the whole area cleaned up, earning the
respect of environmentalist groups. He even takes pride in the color code
for the municipality's sanitation vehicles (green with a stripe of yellow),
the inspiration for which he got while on a visit to Holland.
Mitzna is similarly pleased by the infrastructure feats of Haifa's engineers.
A staircase runs all the way down the northern spine of Mount Carmel,
and at midtown level he stops the car to continue down on foot. He lingers
to point out the special foundations of the hillside apartment towers, and
beyond the buildings, much of Haifa is visible on the broad slopes: the
Carmel mountain ridge, Haifa's pinnacle in terms of both topography and
socioeconomics; Hadar, the downtown area with its ultra-Orthodox Jewish
enclaves; the Arab community's Wadi Nisnas neighborhood; the gentrified
German Colony, which in the 1930s boasted a Nazi Party chapter; and the
port area with its heavy industry, bars, and brothels.
THE SOCIAL stratification of Haifa is one likely reason for the remarkable
lack of acrimony between its sectors. Each of the various ethnic and
religious groups knows its place, and the status quo is reserved.
Haifa is the only city in Israel with a Sabbath bus service, and the
ultra-Orthodox tolerate this, as no one will challenge the barricades
keeping traffic out of their neighborhoods on the holy day.
A representative of Haifa's Viznitz hassidim, Rabbi Aaron Genzler, spots
Mitzna approaching and runs over to grab his hand and thank him for setting
up a special schoolbus route for the community. "You're the best mayor, the
best," the rabbi proclaims for the benefit of anyone within earshot. He then
leans in with another request, as Mitzna listens with a mild smile.
Passersby of every stripe seem to share Genzler's enthusiasm for the
mayor. Motorists slow down to wave or shout out praise in a variety of
accents. Hey, Mitzna!" says one. "Good job, keep it up!"
Some pedestrians are bolder, coming up to introduce themselves and
complain of the construction at their child's kindergarten or the
need for roadworks on their street. Mitzna has his assistant takes
notes and promises to give each matter due attention.
"This is the only way to get to know the city, and the people," he says.
"These walks are my chance to be in touch."
Haifa's residents can also write to him via the municipality or, more
conveniently, phone in during his appearances on local television
(twice monthly) and radio (weekly). Mitzna, who has no driver, let
alone a bodyguard, claims he has never felt intimidated or even aggravated
by this regular contact with the people. "In seven years I only remember
one or two occasions where I had to cut someone off when they became
rude," he says. "I find that if you treat people with respect, communication
and compromise follow."
MITZNA IS something of a carpetbagger. He spent his childhood in Kiryat
Haim, part of the industrial conurbation up the coast from Haifa, and lived
with his family on a kibbutz while pursuing his army career. Other than his
years at the prestigious Reali military boarding school in the Carmel, he
had spent little time in Haifa by the time he was elected mayor in 1993.
And yet he took over 60 percent of the vote, and won reelection in
1998. Like Ehud Barak, he jumped straight from an impressive army
career to high public office, the darling of the Labor Party in a
city traditionally the bastion of the Left. "Mitzna has always been
a leading member of Labor," says party whip Ophir Pines-Paz. "And
his election was certainly a coup for us."
Unlike Barak, Mitzna was a veteran not of army special forces but
of the huge and complex Armored Corps and Planning Division, making
him especially suited for the organizational challenges of City Hall.
Of Haifa's 31 councilmen, 26 are on Mitzna's coalition, including
four from religious Jewish parties and two from Hadash, the pro-communist
and overwhelmingly Arab political movement. This broad base allows
the mayor mostly to have his way. It also helps that he heads the
most important municipal committees, such as the ones for oversight
on the Kishon, for urban construction, for naming roads, and for the
second railway station project.
"The president of the United States doesn't have that much authority,"
says Shmuel Gelbhart, an architect and leader of Haifa's Green Party, whose
four-member faction is the mayor's only real opposition on the city council.
"Mitzna is not answerable to anyone. He has a coalition of yes-men.
Though Gelbhart credits Mitzna for his good work on the Kishon, otherwise
he speaks of the mayor in the dolorous terms usually reserved for natural
disasters. "Haifa has moved forward - into the past," he says.
Indeed, though the municipality pamphlets present a rosy picture of
the urban economy, findings by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics
indicate a sharp rise in Haifa's unemployment and the number of businesses
leaving the city during Mitzna's term.
But any outside observer would be more likely to call Haifa a boom
town. Its quarter million residents have seven shopping malls to choose
from, three of them opened in the past three years. Its Technion is
Israel's counterpart to MIT, its hi-tech complex near the beach includes
branches of Microsoft and Converse, and its office buildings are going
up at a dizzying pace.
If anything, there has been too much development. Haifa's shopkeepers
complain that the surfeit of shopping malls is putting them out of business,
turning the city's once-famous promenades into wastelands. Many of Haifa's
young professionals, fed up with their socially "dead" hometown, soon flee
south for the tonier Tel Aviv areas.
City Hall has been lucky in that Haifa has had a regular influx of
Jews from the former Soviet Union: Over the last decade 51,000 have
arrived, replacing the almost 60,000 natives who left. Yet many of
these immigrants are elderly or are unskilled laborers who will take
a long time to join the workforce.
That means less tax money for the municipality, and further suffering
for the city's infrastructure. For all Haifa's industrial robustness,
it will soon have to deal with this demographic problem.
Mitzna has also been dogged by charges of cronyism, specifically his
unseemly connections with mogul contractor Gad Ze'evi. A partner in
Ze'evi's firm is Yisrael Savion, the Labor Party secretary for Haifa
and a Mitzna confidant.
"It's like a banana republic, where every contractor has a political
appointee," says Gelbhart. He lists case after case of municipal ordinances
being bent to allow Ze'evi and his ilk to build lucrative high-rises.
One notable example is the hotel-cum-apartment block on the beach,
which has been roundly condemned as an eyesore since it went up seven
years ago. It was approved by the previous mayor, Aryeh Gur'el, but
with a nine-story limit allowing for minor changes." Mitzna's engineer
decided that doubling the height fell within that allowance.
To be fair, the Justice Ministry last year found against Gelbhart's
complaint about Mitzna, Savion, and Ze'evi. But more successful
has been the grassroots opposition to the mayor's urban projects.
Civic groups nixed a 27-story building in one neighborhood, saved
an avenue of trees in another, and there is an ongoing battle by the
residents of a beachside community against plans to build a marina
in their midst.
At least there is no such rancor when it comes to Mitzna's most spectacular
project: the Baha'i temple and hanging gardens on the north face of Mount
Carmel, topped by the famous shrine with its golden dome, and sloping down
to the German Colony. Mitzna has been actively involved with the work on
the gardens, pledging that they will be the "eighth wonder of the world"
Not surprisingly, when abroad he is most often recognized by Baha'i
groups, who insist on hosting their mayoral mentor and hearing about
developments back in their spiritual home.
On an unscheduled visit to the construction site, Mitzna is welcomed
by the architect of the hanging gardens, a soft-spoken Persian in
a shiny gray suit. The two confer in halting English about the project'
s progress, Mitzna watching the architect as he lists the various
points of interest. Both men grow solemn as they note that at the
edge of the final stretch of the garden, abutting the perimeter fence,
is a very unsightly Arab house.
"If they decide to add on to the building," murmurs the
architect, "it will be a problem for us."
"Don't worry," answers Mitzna. "They won't get a permit." The Baha'is
will have their garden, and Haifa its tourists and postcard-perfect vista.
BUT MITZNA knows how to look further afield, beyond such pretty and
parochial concerns. Along with the new intifada, the fabric of Jewish-
Arab relations within Israel proper has changed. Nowhere is this felt
as much as in Haifa, with its 10 percent Arab population. After two
Israeli reservists were lynched in Ramallah in October, a soldier
shot up a kebab stand downtown, wounding two Jews he had mistaken
for Arabs. The grim irony of the event aptly illustrates the complexities
of the city's mixed populace.
As it happened, that terrorist act was overshadowed by the riots that
ripped through the Israeli Arab sector in early October, especially
in the North. Yet while 13 Israeli Arab youths were shot dead by police
and a Jewish motorist was killed by rock-thrower while heading south
on the coastal road, Haifa was spared tragedy, largely because of
Mitzna's response to the disturbances.
In describing how, on October 3, Mitzna dealt with a downtown mob
which demanded the release of several Arab demonstrators who had been
arrested, Ma'ariv eschewed critical remove:
"One righteous man from Sodom, the mayor of Haifa, stepped out
on the field. Amram Mitzna requested that the police not provide him
with protection, and he walked into the middle of the tumult. He was
immediately surrounded by dozens of Arab residents who cried out to
him: 'Go home, trash, trash.' Negotiations got under way on the spot
and both sides came to agreement upon their completion: The police
would immediately release three demonstrators, and if the peace would
be maintained, would release another three demonstrators at midnight.
The mayor of Haifa returned home safely."
As head of the Army Central Command during the first intifada, Mitzna
was equally intolerant of violence by Palestinians and vigilantism
by Jewish settlers in his jurisdiction. As mayor of Haifa, it seems,
he refuses to allow such unrest to cross his threshold. Mitzna's
bravery in the face of the civic discord, and the alacrity with which
he later condemned the Galilee police for their use of lethal force,
won him the accolades throughout the Israeli Arab sector.
"He is a man who cares about people, not race," says
councilman Iman Ouda of Hadash. "He looks you in the eye, whether
you are an Arab or Jew."
In recent months, Mitzna has found himself acting as an unofficial
envoy of the Jewish establishment to Israeli Arab sectors in the North,
investing hours in careful rapprochement. His destination this week
is Eilaboun, a tidy village in the Galilee, and as his car passes
the communities hardest-hit by the October riots, he eyes the paper
portraits of the dead, hanging off lampposts like forlorn icons.
"It's unthinkable for a nation to open fire on its own citizens as they
demonstrate," he states quietly, "and a lot will have to be done to make up
for this debacle. But we must try. There is no alternative."
Mitzna's leftist leanings have been dubbed extreme, and are seen as
being at odds with his martial background. Yet, as veteran political
commentator Yaron London notes, the Left has a remarkable preponderance of
former generals. One reason is that these are from a generation when
advancement in the army was impossible without conspicuous membership to
the Labor Party or its Mapai precursor. Perhaps, also, old warriors have
seen the enemy's human face, and thus feel a greater imperative to seek
"It's way too easy to be on the Right," Mitzna says simply. "You just
hunker down and see how long you can stick it out. It's much harder
to move ahead and create change."
At Eilaboun, Mitzna and his retinue are greeted by the mayor, who
doubles as the local engineer, and the rest of the village elders.
There are short speeches in the cramped municipal conference room,
and communal coffee cups passed around. When one local mentions the
October riots, Mitzna stands slowly with a lugubrious mien, and expresses
his heartfelt regret "as Haifa's mayor and as a fellow Israeli."
The listeners rock forward appreciatively and, thus encouraged, Mitzna
dilates. Referring to Israeli Arabs as "Palestinian citizens of Israel,
" he says that the intifada problem will have to be solved, at some
point, with a Palestinian state. "And just as there are Arabs in Israel
now," he continues, "one hopes there could be Jews living in Palestine then."
Later, on a stroll around the village, Mitzna is shown a square where
an old stone wall has been reinforced, preserved in commemoration
of 14 local men who were put up against it and shot by Jewish soldiers
during the War of Independence. Mitzna nods, pensive, as he hears
the story. On the drive back to Haifa, secluded in the car, he mentions
mordantly that the men were killed in revenge, after two Jews were
found beheaded outside Eilaboun.
With two-and-a-half years to go until the end of his second term in
office, it is agreed that Mitzna is, overall, a good mayor, and that
no one really knows what he ultimately wants for his career. When
he was first elected he had the backing of then prime minister Yitzhak
Rabin, and it was widely rumored he was being groomed for a ministerial
post. Then Rabin was assassinated, and when Barak became premier,
Mitzna worked to cultivate their friendship, only to allow it to curdle
along with the peace process.
In the aftermath of Barak's ouster and the election of Ariel Sharon,
Mitzna is reticent about any aspirations he might have for national
office - perhaps as head of the Labor Party. "There has been a big
eruption in Labor," he says, "and as in any eruption you have
to wait for the dust to settle."
Though he has until July to enter the race for party leadership, this
would require months of preparation and nationwide campaigning. Mitzna
has made no move in this direction. He seems content with his municipal
Pines-Paz expresses some disappointment over this. "Mitzna definitely
has the qualities and the experiences which would make him a good Labor
leader," he says, adding: "Simply put, it would be a step up
from Haifa mayor, for which he is well equipped."
Meanwhile, though Mitzna has been uncharacteristically cautious in
his criticism of Ariel Sharon, the new prime minister is said to be
looking forward to settling some scores with the Haifa mayor. During
the 1982 Lebanon War, Mitzna was one of the few officers to speak
out against Sharon, then defense minister. And when Sharon sued Ha'
aretz in 1991 for libel after it blamed him for the Sabra and Shatilla
massacre, Mitzna testified on behalf of the newspaper.
Shmuel Arad, the head of the Contractors Union and a former subordinate
of Sharon in the army, is believed to be the prime minister's pick
to run against Mitzna in the next election. Should Sharon be around
that long, this could prove a double coup - the elimination of Mitzna
and conquest of a long-time stronghold of the Left.
For now, Mitzna is staying put as Haifa's mayor. "No one knows
if he is here because it's good for him, or because he has no choice,
" says Avi Kfiri of the leading Haifa weekly Kolbo. "Mitzna's
(Box) The ultimate role model
Still fondly remembered as a model for local government is Abba Khoushi,
the second mayor of Haifa after Israel gained its independence. Khoushi
served from 1951 until his death in 1969 - 18 years which saw the
port town mature into a metropolis of international renown.
Born in Galicia, Khoushi was involved in various Zionist organizations
before immigrating to Mandatory Palestine in 1920. As a kibbutz member,
he gained experience in agriculture and construction, as well as
fluency in Arabic and fast friendship with Arab leaders.
In 1927 he moved to Haifa, organizing dock workers in a precursor
to the Histadrut trade union. As a leading representative of Mapai
(later the Labor Party), he was a member of Israel's first Knesset
Khoushi was to Haifa what Fiorello La Guardia was to New York: a mayor
at once affable, accessible, and authoritative. His first name recalling
the Hebrew for "Dad," Khoushi was famous for his daily traipses around
Haifa, during which residents would come up to praise or importune,
or merely to chat. Among the area's Druse and Arab communities Khoushi
was especially well-received, as he strove for a sense of equality
across the ethnic divide.
Haifa bloomed under Khoushi's auspices, with an expanding industrial
base, especially in the port. Among municipal institutions opened
were Haifa University, the medical school, the Haifa Theater, the
Beit Hagefen cultural center, and the Carmelit underground train.
Furthermore, Haifa also became a center of cultural festivals, many
of them with a multiethnic slant.
©Copyright 2001, Jerusalem Post
Page last updated/revised 071501
Return to the Bahá'í Association's Main Web Page