JERUSALEM (Sep. 24)
In the week since former Prime Minister Shimon Peres electrified the nation by declaring on television that he would not run for prime minister in the year 2000, Israelis have been trying to determine exactly when he plans to step down as leader of the Labor Party.
Peres’ Sept. 18 announcement ended widespread speculation about his intentions in the wake of narrowly losing the May election to the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu.
His announcement came a week after Ehud Barak, the former Israel Defense Force chief of staff who served as foreign minster in the Peres government, declared his candidacy for the party’s leadership.
Barak’s leading rival is Haim Ramon, the minister of interior in the Peres-led government. The champion of Labor doves, Ramon has not yet formally declared his candidacy.
Barak has reiterated at every opportunity that the Labor Party’s constitution calls for leadership elections within 14 months of a defeat at the national elections.
But Peres’ televised statement left an unanswered question that clearly Peres deliberately left open: When exactly would Peres shed the leadership mantle and enable a newly-elected leader to take over the party in advance of the next election?
Some political observers believe that far from paving the way for his imminent retirement, Peres in fact used his television appearance to strengthen his present position in the party, thereby enabling himself to remain at the helm for the foreseeable future.
Having announced that he would not run for the premiership in the next election, Peres has rebutted critics who accused him of failing to bow out and make way for the younger generation.
And having rebutted such criticism, Peres is now better placed to stay put until just before the next elections are due in the year 2000.
Far longer, that is, than the July 1997 date set by the party constitution for the choice of a new party leader.
Moreover, if the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should somehow fall before the year 2000 — unlikely, but not impossible — Labor would have no new leader in place.
It would then, presumably, put up Peres again in a snap election, which by law would be held within 60 days of the government’s collapse.
These scenarios are lent additional weight by the constant buzz of rumor and speculation surrounding the creation of a national unity government.
Peres himself is said to believe that within a few months at most, given the Netanyahu government’s hard-line policies, Israel’s international situation will have deteriorated so drastically that a unity government will become both necessary and urgent.
In that instance, Peres would lead Labor into the unity government, becoming himself deputy prime minister to Netanyahu and allocating the other ministerial portfolios among the various candidates vying for his party leadership position.
This prospect, not surprisingly, is said to fill Peres with relish.
In the absence of a unity government — which most Labor and Likud members consider far-fetched — Peres may still find a way to hang onto the leadership well beyond July 1997 by playing off his various would-be heirs against each other.
According to this scenario, Peres would throw his support behind Ramon in a bid to deflect Barak’s headlong rush for the leadership, and the Peres-Ramon front would fight for a postponement of the leadership battle.
Ramon’s interest in such a postponement is clear: Current polls show him lagging considerably behind Barak.
Ramon has taken a good deal of the blame for Labor’s poor campaign in the runup to the May elections, while Barak has been claiming, with much cogency, that Peres would still be prime minister had the party accepted Barak’s more aggressive line.
The other candidates would presumably be equally keen to build up their images and their finances for as long as possible before facing up to the well-known and well-respected Barak.
This week, Ephraim Sneh became the latest figure to throw his hat into the Labor leadership ring.
Sneh, who served as health minister in the previous Labor government, says his candidacy could unite the party. He just returned from a lengthy visit to the United States, where he was assumed to have begun raising financial support for his political aspirations.
One possible candidate for the party leadership, though considered a dark horse at the moment, is Professor Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former ambassador to Spain and a newly elected Knesset member.
The Moroccan-born Ben-Ami says he could woo vital segments of the Israeli population without whose support no Labor leader can reach the premiership.
He also claims to have Peres’ backing, but Peres himself says he will make his preference known “at the appropriate time.”
Ramon, who has not yet made an official announcement, says he is coordinating his position with another popular dove and possible contender: Uzi Baram.
Tourism minister in the Peres Cabinet, Baram beat both Barak and Ramon in the Labor primaries earlier this year that determined the candidate’s rankings in the party’s Knesset list.
Baram has said he will make his own position clear in the coming weeks.
Peres, meanwhile — according to recent leaks from his close family circle – - is not persuaded that either Barak or Ramon has the requisite leadership qualities.
But that might just be a smoke screen — to put off the day when he may have to hand over the reins of power to one of them.