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Mitzna woos Arabs and Israelis

By CNN's Christiane Amanpour

Mitzna, left
Mitzna hopes to replicate his local success on the national stage

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HAIFA, Israel (CNN) -- Billboards in Arabic say: "I Love Haifa," posters advertise "Co-existence Works," there is an Arab-Jewish Center, and the city is serious about community relations.

Resident Dr. Mordechai Peri says Haifa follows its mayor, Amram Mitzna's, lead.

"He knows how to deal with minorities, he knows that equality is the most important thing between Arab and Jews," the doctor said.

Another resident Dr. Butrus Abu-Manneh agrees, adding Mitzna has given three top city jobs to Arabs.

"He is likeable, trustworthy, he has a lot of good intentions and people trust him really," he reflected.

Jews come to the Arab quarter, to mingle, drink coffee, go shopping and get along. Mitzna says he can do for Israel what he's done for Haifa. So why isn't he is leading in the polls?

Mitzna himself says: "It's a big question, I must say I don't have the answer why so many people do back my ideas but still they hesitate to vote for labor under my leadership."

Mitzna says he is determined to struggle on regardless, to build a platform for Labor as a credible opposition party, and to strengthen it so it is poised to lead the country again when the time is right. And that means staying out of a coalition with Ariel Sharon's Likud Party, even though most Israelis say they want a national unity government.

Mitzna said: "You must be in opposition because once you are not in opposition there is no real opposition to government policy, then people lose hope ..."

The enduring war with Palestinians is a cause for hopelessness. Mitzna's TV ads remind voters he helped implement Israel's iron fist policy during the first Intifada...but like Rabin, (Israel's assassinated former prime minister) the soldier now wants a peaceful solution. Mitzna is a former army general.

"Yes, sure terrorism must be met with an iron fist, and terrorism is something you have to fight strongly, on the other hand we need to call to negotiate and I will call the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating table," Mitzna said.

Most controversially, but in line with at least half the voters, Mitzna says he'll evacuate all Jewish settlements in Gaza. He recently told settlers living there just that:

"Why do you want to continue living in the middle of a million or more Palestinians here?" he asked one settler.

When another tells Mitzna he likes living by the sea, the candidate retorts: "Six million Israelis are paying a heavy price for you to live here."

"What do we gain?" he asks. He quizzes another: "Seven-hundred-and-fifty (people) killed in two years, a destroyed economy, no chance for Israelis to lead a normal life?"

Mitzna knows he's up against it trying to win a settler's vote...but he is hoping to win back Arab Israelis, who boycotted Labor in the last election.

In many Israeli towns Arabs remember the last labor government of Ehud Barak violently suppressing demonstrations, killing 13 people. Haifa was spared only because of the direct intervention of Mitzna in the city's Arab neighborhood.

It happened shortly after the start of the Intifada. There were Arab protesters, there were police. Into the middle walked Mitzna. He convinced the police not to shoot, and the demonstrators to disperse.

Even two suicide bombs have not shaken the fabric of Haifa's society. Mitzna says he believes in peace, if not today, tomorrow or the day after. That goes for his chances too.

"I am a marathon runner not a sprinter, and I'll take the Labor party where the labor party should be, leading the country," he said.

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