Labor Party Postpones Action on Determining Role for Peres

A deeply divided Labor Party convened this week to decide what kind of role to give outgoing party leader Shimon Peres — and voted to put off a decision until September.

Tuesday’s political showdown at the Tel Aviv gathering of 3,500 Labor delegates brought to a head a power struggle in the party as it prepares to choose a new leader in June. At that time, Peres will step down as party chairman.

Ehud Barak, a former Israel Defense Force chief of staff who served as foreign minister in the 1995-1996 Peres government, is considered the leading contender to replace Peres.

He is touted as the most likely of the four candidates to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the next national elections, slated for 2000.

The other three candidates are: Yossi Beilin, a longtime Peres acolyte who served as minister without portfolio in the previous government; Ephraim Sneh, a doctor and former brigadier general who was minister of health in the Peres government; and first-term Labor Knesset member Shlomo Ben-Ami, a history professor and former ambassador to Spain.

At issue during Tuesday’s session was a proposal to create the new post of party president to honor Peres.

During the stormy session, which was punctuated by catcalls and cheers from respective camps during the speeches, Barak warned that creating the position with anything more than honorary status would lead to divisions in the party and create confusion about who was really in charge.

He urged the conference to take up the issue at its next session in September, after the party chairmanship was determined.

For his part, Peres said that unless the conference appointed him president this week, he would no longer want the position.

Alluding to his long history in the party, Peres said he was not seeking the position to build a power base and would not subject himself to the humiliation of a delayed decision.

Labor Party Secretary Nissim Zvilli, who initiated the proposal for Peres, insisted that he was only interested in honoring Peres’ contribution to the party.

But observers suggested that if Peres were appointed president before the Labor primaries, he could influence those party members who had not yet aligned themselves with any of the candidates.

Some also suggested that Peres could use the post to help party doves rein in the more hawkish Barak if the former general were elected party chairman.

After members of the Barak and Peres camps were unable to reach a compromise on the post’s powers, the party decided to postpone the decision.

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