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Israel’s opposition Labor Party now has a new leader, who is calling for an immediate resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians. In Tuesday’s leadership election, Mr. Amram Mitzna, the mayor of Haifa, won an easy victory over Mr. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the party chief who had served as defense minister in the coalition government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Labor will confront the rightwing Likud Party in a general election scheduled for Jan. 28.

Prospects for a Labor win appear to be slim, however, with polls predicting a solid lead for Likud. The challenge for Mr. Mitzna is to revive the image of his left-center party as a peacemaker — an image that had been badly tarnished during its 20 months of cooperation with the hardline government of Prime Minister Sharon. Last month Labor quit the coalition over a budget dispute involving Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

Mr. Mitzna, who was described as a “Labor outsider” during the coalition days, is the standard bearer of Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement. His rise to the top, coming at a time when public opinion in Israel appears to be shifting further to the right, is significant. It shows that there still remains a large body of opinion in favor of peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians.

Palestinian statehood is no longer a fanciful dream. The United States, in consultation with the United Nations, is expected to unveil, perhaps next month, a peace plan calling for the establishment of a provisional Palestinian state by the end of 2003. The Palestinians are likely to accept it. With Mr. Mitzna at the helm, Labor has a great opportunity to marshal peace forces at home and help put the plan into action.

Mr. Mitzna’s ascendancy also gives Labor a chance to regain some of its past glory. It remained in power through the 1970s when it lost a national election to Likud for the first time. Nearly two years ago, Labor under Mr. Eliezer entered a coalition with Likud to stop the rightwing party from “going to extremes.” The result was negative: Prime Minister Sharon escalated his military campaign against the Palestinians, with Labor sitting largely on the sidelines.

In the 1992 election, Labor seized power from Likud for the first time in 15 years. The following year Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed a political declaration opening the way for Palestinian self-rule. But the Rabin initiative was declared “dead” under the Sharon government, which has put security before peace as a cycle of deadly violence continued.

Mr. Mitzna’s triumph in the party election casts him in the role of reviving that initiative, if not in substance then at least in spirit. The message is that Labor is returning to its former self, so to speak. In other words, the party is trying to make it clear, at home and abroad, that it is different from Likud. With peace hanging in the balance, that difference is crucial.

Likud, which faces its own leadership vote on Thursday, is set to continue its hardline policy, no matter who is elected. The election will be contested one on one between Prime Minister Sharon and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the former premier who is calling for the ouster of Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority. Polls show Mr. Sharon in the lead.

As things stand, Likud is likely to win January’s parliamentary election, judging from the strong Israeli sentiment against seemingly unabated violence on the part of Palestinians. On Thursday, in the latest in a series of suicide bomb attacks, 10 passengers on a crowded bus in Jerusalem were reportedly killed and dozens of others wounded. Mr. Sharon’s tough response to terrorism is understandable, but there is no denying that his “iron-fisted” eye-for-an-eye policy has not achieved its aim of achieving security.

The U.S. peace plan, which is currently being discussed informally with Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, offers a promising prospect for peace in the Middle East. First, violence would be halted and the Palestinian Authority restructured by May 2003. Then, an interim Palestinian state would be created by December and a fully independent state by 2005.

This plan, which is based on U.S. President George W. Bush’s speech in June calling for comprehensive Mideast peace, will be a major issue in the Israeli general election. Granted, the devil is in the details, which could yet stall future peace efforts. But if Israelis decide to give peace another chance, that will be a major step forward toward an early resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks.

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