Peres Loss As Chief of Labor Party Could Mean Early Elections for Israel

Israeli politics have been thrown into disarray by the surprise ouster of Shimon Peres as head of the Labor Party. Trade union chief Amir Peretz narrowly defeated Peres in a Labor primary Wednesday, defying expectations that the 82-year-old incumbent would easily retain the helm of the party he helped found. It continued Peres’ career pattern of losing elections he was expected to win easily.

“I expected a better evening,” Peres told reporters following the nightlong ballot count, which took a dramatic turn after exit polls gave clashing predictions of who would win.

The triumph of the mustachioed, socialist, Moroccan-born Peretz constitutes a cultural revolution for Labor. It also poses the greatest threat yet to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s coalition government, which Peretz seems set on quitting.

“We want to leave,” Peretz, 53, told supporters. “Our desire is certainly to make the Labor Party an alternative, with the intention of taking power in the next elections.”

Polls show that a Labor under Peretz would do worse in a national vote than under Peres, losing three Knesset seats.

But for Sharon, a walkout by Labor would spell the end of a government already hard-hit by infighting in his ruling Likud Party.

“If Peretz wins, it will be a disaster for the Likud,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was quoted as saying Wednesday, when the Labor primary began.

Sharon congratulated Peretz and invited him for talks Sunday. Should the two decide to split, that could bring elections currently scheduled for November 2006 forward by nine months.

Peretz, who made his career battling public-sector budget cuts by the likes of former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has made clear that he’ll require help on noneconomic political fronts.

“Shimon, I need you,” he said in an appeal on Peres to join forces.

Peres had no immediate response. His staff said they were awaiting the results of an 11th-hour demand for a recount of ballots in Peretz’s hometown, Sderot.

But it appeared unlikely that the elder statesman would rush to play second fiddle to the untested Peretz.

It was a trying time for the man who won a Nobel Peace Prize for co-authoring the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, but was never elected to Israel’s top office.

Peres served as prime minister twice, but only as part of a power-sharing deal in the 1980s and as successor to the slain Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

He even failed in a bid to be chosen by the Knesset for the ceremonial presidency. One commentator referred to him as “the Job of Israeli politics.”

An alliance with Sharon could remain Peres’ last option. With the Likud split over the recent Gaza withdrawal, speculation is on the rise that Sharon could quit to form a new, more centrist party.

If so, Peres is expected to serve, once more, as Sharon’s No. 2.

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