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News Analysis: Peres’ Political Future is Unclear,’ Despite His Stunning Defeat of Rabin

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The political pundits who said Shimon Peres was “finished” had red faces Sunday after he decisively quashed a challenge by former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin for leadership of the Labor Party.

Contrary to their predictions, the incumbent party chairman won a 54 percent vote of confidence in Labor’s Central Committee and will serve out the term to which he was re-elected in 1988.

Rabin, who was demanding that the party hold elections for chairman immediately, seems to have a less certain future.

But the embarrassed experts also foresaw a period of internal strife and unrest within the Labor Party in the months ahead, and that prognostication may still turn out to be correct.

Rabin, who humbly resigned himself to a subordinate position after the Central Committee’s decision Sunday night, declared Monday that he would “continue to seek the leadership of the party.”

Peres, who sounded magnanimous in victory, said Rabin would continue to be part of Labor’s top echelon. But he said nothing about his rival continuing to occupy the No. 2 spot in the party’s hierarchy.

Yediot Achronot, Israel’s largest daily, said Monday that “Peres intends to distance Rabin from the No. 2 slot.” Indeed, his denials of such intentions seemed less than convincing.

In any event, Peres’ victory is of specifically limited duration. A majority of the 3,363-member Central Committee called for new leadership elections to be held a year before the term of the current Knesset expires in 1992.

PERES COULD RUN AGAIN

That means Peres’ tenure would be up in 1991 — or sooner if the Likud coalition government falls and early elections are called.

By next year, a number of young second-rank party officials may well throw their hats into the ring to challenge the incumbent leadership.

The prospect of the younger generation breaking through after nearly 20 years of Peres-Rabin hegemony over the party seems increasingly likely, especially after Peres beat off Rabin’s challenge.

His impassioned speech to the Central Committee, before it voted Sunday, was in “part a plea for new blood to invigorate the party. He pledged to encourage fledgling leaders to grow in stature.

By Monday, Peres’ tone had changed slightly. He said he would step aside if, as Knesset elections drew near, he decided there was a younger leader of stature emerging who could better lead the party to victory over Likud than himself.

Labor insiders who know Peres well said it was far from certain he would reach such a conclusion when the time came.

Moreover, if Rabin makes good on his promise to seek the leadership again, Peres could be counted on to run against him, the insiders said.

Nevertheless, some Laborites who stood loyally behind Peres on Sunday did so in part because they felt a victory for him would improve the prospects of a generation change of leadership before the next showdown with Likud at the ballot box.

Many Central Committee members balked at the idea of Rabin getting elected and staying in office until 1996, even though he, too, promised to step aside if someone more likely to achieve victory at the polls emerged.

So far, several young Laborites have declared their intention to seek the party leadership the next time it votes. Among them are the popular Knesset members Ora Namir and Moshe Shahal, who seem to have established a political alliance for the time being at least.

Shahal is a former energy minister. His refusal to back Rabin was an important element in Peres’ victory.

Namir, too, resisted Rabin’s overtures and cast a blank ballot to protest what she said was a personal fight bereft of ideological significance.

Other younger Laborites who may seek leadership are Mordechai Gur, a former Cabinet minister, and Haim Ramon, chairman of the party’s Knesset faction.

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