Bahai News - The conqueror of Haifa

Mitzna's most spectacular project: the Baha'i temple and hanging garden on the north face of Mount Carmel.
(Sarit Uziely)

The conqueror of Haifa

By Dan Williams

(April 30) -- With the Labor Party looking for a leader, Haifa's popular mayor Amram Mitzna might seem a natural contender. But the ex-general seems to have found a political home in the city by the bay.--

In spring 1967, 22-year-old Armored Corps Captain Amram Mitzna was on standby with his tank company. War loomed inevitable, and during 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 mayor of Haifa, and a major political enigma - still sports a full beard.

As head of the country's third-largest city, 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 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 all credibility.

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 Sha'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 IDF Chief of Central Command in the late 1980s bore the brunt of the first intifada in the West Bank 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 finalized.

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 haredi 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 haredim 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. 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 grew up 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 on 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 Barak, he jumped straight from an impressive army career to high public office, a 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 new railway projects.

"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 is 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. There has also been 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" once completed.

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 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.

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 23-year-old Haifa 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 Eilabun, a tidy village in 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.

"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 Eilabun, 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."

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 obligations.

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 a mystery."


©Copyright 2001, The Jerusalem Post

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