TEL AVIV (Nov. 30)
A week after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon created a political earthquake by walking out of Israel’s ruling Likud Party, his old partner Shimon Peres has provided the aftershock. Peres announced Wednesday he was resigning from the Labor Party, bringing to a close almost 50 years in which he played a prominent role in the founding movement of the Jewish state in one form or another.
“My activities in the party have come to an end,” Peres told reporters after returning from an official trip to Spain.
Peres’ reign in Labor was not always happy. The Polish-born statesman won accolades abroad, but never election to top office in Israel, though he twice served as prime minister in national unity governments. When earlier this month he lost the party leadership to Amir Peretz — a trade union chief untested in diplomacy — he made no secret of his disaffection with the party.
Peres, 82, presented his decision to bolt as a bid to help Sharon seek peace with the Palestinians.
“I ask myself what, in the coming years, in this year, is the main thing facing Israel. I have no doubt this is the inevitable intersection of peace and the diplomatic process,” Peres said. “I believe that the most suitable person for this is Arik Sharon.”
He hinted that Labor under Peretz was not fit for the challenges of achieving a final settlement with the Palestinian Authority following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip earlier this year.
“I have found incompatibilities between the Labor I belong to, and the current diplomatic situation. Without underestimating my emotional connection to the party’s historical path and its thousands of members, I must pursue the greater and more pressing consideration,” Peres said.
To some senior Laborites, it smacked of sour grapes.
“The Labor Party is more committed to peace than any other party and Peres’ attempt to use peace as an excuse for his walkout is pathetic,” Ofir Pines-Paz said.
Sharon has invited Peres to join Kadima, the centrist party he formed after quitting the Likud last week. But Peres has said nothing about a formal alliance. Political pundits believe that, should the prime minister win a March 28 general election, he will make Peres his honorary peace envoy.
For Likud members still reeling from the loss of Sharon, the prospect of Peres joining Kadima was seen as cause for optimism. Some voiced hope that Likud supporters tempted to defect to Sharon’s party would now think twice.
“We are standing united against the left-wing party led by Sharon, along with Peres and all the other lefties he brought in,” Education Minister Limor Livnat said.
Peres emigrated to British Mandate Palestine as a youth, rising through the ranks of Labor’s precursor, Mapai, to become an aide to the first Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Though he never gained a military pedigree, he made his own contribution to Israel’s military strength through his leading role in obtaining nuclear materials from France in the 1950s. He was also a key player in the 1993 Oslo accords, which he signed with the late Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. The following year, the three shared the Nobel Peace Prize.