JERUSALEM (May. 3)
Former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin publicly challenged Shimon Peres for the Labor Party’s leadership Thursday, but Peres made it clear he has no intention of stepping down.
The confrontation between the two longtime rivals, which took place in Tel Aviv at an acrimonious meeting of Labor’s former Cabinet ministers, only heightened tension at the top of the divided and dispirited Labor Party.
Rabin leveled the blame at Peres for failing to form a Labor-led coalition government in 36 days of efforts. Peres’ fruitless attempts ended April 26, when he handed back his mandate to President Chaim Herzog.
Rabin later told reporters that if Labor does not join the government and winds up in the opposition, its primary purpose would be to engineer early elections and change the electoral system.
However, Rabin and his supporters favor another try at a unity government with Likud.
Rabin said he would immediately step forward to replace Peres as party chairman and its candidate for prime minister.
Peres said the Labor Party’s convention, when it occurs, will be the place to choose a leader.
“Why should I resign now?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m fighting for peace.”
Peres won a point when the former ministers voted unanimously for a resolution committing Labor to try to block Likud’s current attempts to form a narrow coalition with the right-wing and the religious parties.
Rabin had called on Likud last week to set up a unity regime with Labor for a limited duration, with the sole purpose of enacting electoral reforms that would, among other things, provide for the direct election of the prime minister.
Rabin’s call was greeted by a flatly negative response from acting Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who is aiming for a narrow Likud government.
Such a government, he said, might allow Labor to join at some later date.
Labor quit its 15-month alliance with Likud on March 13, because Shamir refused to accept a U.S. formula for an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. The government fell March 15 on a Labor-sponsored no-confidence vote.
But the ultra-Orthodox parties that contributed to its downfall subsequently aligned themselves with Likud.
Shamir, who has agreements with most of the religious bloc, is presently trying to corral the five votes of the National Religious Party. The NRP balks at an alliance with extreme rightists, and is trying to patch together another unity regime, so far without much success.