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Labor Party Quits Israeli Gov’t, Paving the Way for Early Elections

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Israeli politics usually make for fine drama — and 2006 is shaping up to be no exception to that rule. On Sunday, Israel’s Labor Party voted to pull out of Ariel Sharon’s coalition government.

Meanwhile, rumors were rife that Sharon would leave the Likud as early as Monday and form his own centrist party to run in elections that are expected to be held early next year.

The vote by Labor’s Central Committee formalized the pledge by the new party leader, Amir Peretz, to split from the ruling Likud Party and hold the early elections.

Veteran trade union chief Peretz made clear in his speech that his race against Sharon would center on economic issues.

“You stood by as Bibi battered your supporters mercilessly, forcing the poor to root around in the garbage,” Peretz said in his speech, referring to former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Peretz also accused Sharon of neglecting the needs of immigrants.

The prime minister has agreed to Peretz’s call for early elections, which are expected to take place in February or March, rather than November 2006 as originally scheduled.

The next step for Labor is to have its ministers tender resignations from Sharon’s Cabinet, which is expected to take effect by Wednesday.

At that point, the prime minister, lacking a parliamentary majority, is expected to ask President Moshe Katsav to declare the government dissolved and start the count-down to elections.

Noticeably absent from Sunday’s session of the Labor Central Committee was Shimon Peres, whom Peretz ousted as party chief on Nov. 9. Channel Two television said Peres met with Sharon — fueling speculation that the two could partner up once more if the prime minister quits the Likud to form a new, more centrist party.

At the same time, Sharon, 77, appears set on embarking on a new political career.

Rifts in his ruling Likud Party have stirred speculation that the Israeli prime minister could bolt.

“Any day now, we’re expecting him to split and start afresh,” a Sharon confidant said Sunday.

The prime minister has declined comment, but makes little secret of his ire at a dozen Likud “rebels” who, angered over the recent Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, have frequently opposed him in Parliament.

The defeat of Peres, who has been serving as his vice premier, in a Labor Party primary earlier this month is another reason to break away.

“Sharon, as far as anyone call tell, decided long ago that he has no intention of drinking from the poisoned chalice prepared by those Likud colleagues who were meant to ride into the next Knesset on his coattails,” wrote Yediot Achronot political correspondent Shimon Shiffer.

But history has not been kind to Israeli leaders who try to reinvent themselves through new political parties. Sharon is considered a founding father of the Likud, whose grass-roots supporters are famously partisan.

A recent poll predicted that, at the head of a new party, Sharon would run neck-and-neck with Peretz’s Labor in the next elections, with each taking 28 seats in the Knesset. By contrast, if Sharon remains at the Likud helm, he is expected to easily beat Peretz, a trade union leader popular with Israel’s underclass but untested in foreign affairs.

Still, with almost half of the Likud faction chafing at the diplomatic course set by Sharon, and with party rival Netanyahu criticizing him over the Gaza withdrawal, a split from Likud would allow Sharon to capitalize on his popularity with the Israeli mainstream.

Ma’ariv reported that the prime minister already has a number of center-right politicians in mind for his new inner circle, including Dan Meridor, former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, Russian immigration expert Ya’acov Kedmi and the president of Ben-Gurion University, Avishai Braverman, who has long called for a civic revolution in Israel.

Peres is a likely option to again play a statesmanly second fiddle to Sharon.

Sharon could also be expected to take with him those Likudniks who agree with the party’s shift, in recent years, from championing Jewish settlement in all of “Greater Israel” toward embracing territorial concessions as a means of achieving peace — or at least quiet — with the Palestinians.

Shiffer predicted that Sharon, if he breaks away, “will create a political mass-migration the likes of which the state has never known.”

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