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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Israel's Peres may leave Labor, join Sharon

ISN SECURITY WATCH (30/11/05) - The transformation of the Israeli political landscape continues as former prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres is expected to announce his departure from the Labor party, his political home for the last 61 years.

The 82-year-old Peres is said to have accepted an offer from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to join a future Sharon-led government as a minister with responsibility for overseeing peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Under the deal, Peres would endorse, but not join, Sharon’s new Kadima (Forward) party.

Earlier this month, the Labor Party quit its role as junior coalition partner in the Sharon government. Sharon responded the next day by leaving the governing Likud Party to form a new centrist list, having tendered his resignation.

Should Peres refrain from running for the Israeli parliament (the Knesset), it would end a record 46 years in which he was a Knesset member. Sharon could appoint Peres to be minister even if he is not elected to serve in the Knesset.

Peres has not yet made an official announcement on the issue, but has hinted that his time in the Labor party is over. Speaking to reporters in Barcelona, Peres said “the real change is not in the Labor Party”.

Fuelling speculation that he will depart Labor, Peres was full of praise for Sharon, declaring that “Mr. Sharon took a different direction for a Palestinian state. He wants to continue the peace process”.

Israeli commentators have been speculating that Peres might join forces with Sharon ever since his shock defeat to trade union leader Amir Peretz in an internal Labor election for chairman earlier this month.

Before the Labor vote, Peres had campaigned for continued political cooperation with Sharon. He was visibly bitter at his loss to former ally Peretz and refused for over 24 hours to congratulate the new party leader.

Relations between Peres and Peretz publicly deteriorated on Monday, when Peres’ brother Gigi compared the new Labor leader to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco: “Amir Peretz and his people are a foreign body in the Labor Party, like General Franco in Spain.”

“Like Franco, he recruited militias from North Africa,” Gigi Peres said, referring to Peretz’s Moroccan background.

While the comments drew widespread condemnation from across the political spectrum, including Peres’ office, commentators are certain Peres’ departure from Labor is imminent.

Earlier this week, Labor Member of Knesset (MK) Dalia Itzik, a close confidante of Peres, announced her decision to leave Labor and join Sharon’s centrist Kadima party.

The move was seen as a clear indication of Peres’ intentions. Analysts consider it unlikely that Itzik would have joined Kadima without a guarantee that Peres would follow suit.

Peres’ anticipated move is only one of many draftings that seem to have transformed Israeli politics into a party marketplace. Ever since the Labor chairman elections and the creation of the Kadima party, Sharon and Peretz have been busy adding prominent Israeli names to their party membership lists.

Peretz has succeeded in convincing a number of new high-profile faces to join Labor, including a well-known news broadcaster, the president of Ben Gurion University, several musicians and artists, and other prominent social activists and peace advocates. He is also scheduled to meet former IDF deputy chief of staff Uzi Dayan later on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Sharon has secured the support of several politicians from his former Likud party, as well as Labor and other centrist figures. His new Kadima party also has the backing of numerous members of the security establishment.

A public endorsement of Kadima by Shimon Peres would be seen as a major defeat for the Labor party under Peretz. However, commentators have questioned whether bringing in Peres - widely regarded in Israel as an “eternal loser” due to his poor election record - would indeed help Sharon.

Akiva Eldar, a diplomatic affairs analyst for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz newspaper, told ISN Security Watch that Sharon should urge Peres to retire, rather than join forces with the prime minister. “Peres won’t be a great asset to Sharon,” he added.

As Labor and Kadima struggle over securing the support of Peres and other renowned figures, the Likud, abandoned by Sharon only weeks ago and embroiled in a bitter contest over its future leadership, continues to plummet. Recent polls suggest it could lose up to 30 of its current 40 seats in the Knesset and end up as the country’s fourth-largest party.

(By Jonathan Landau in Zurich)
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