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THE PERETZ EFFECT

Peretz Sources: 'New Labor Party Leader Will Not Be Manipulated By Prime Minister Sharon Nor By Labor Has Beens'

'Peretz Has Already Launched His General Election Campaign Clashing Head-on With PM Sharon'

Likud Rebels: 'Likud Must Now Unite & Resolve Sharon-Netanyahu Leadership Feud'

Amir Peretz

The stunning victory of Amir Peretz, the fiery Histadrut union boss who now leads the Labor Party, has shaken up Israeli politics. Both political friends and foes are reassessing what the implications are for their personal and their parties' futures. Peretz sources promise the new Labor leader is waging 'a new style of politics' that both his Labor party and Sharon's Likud will have to get used to. Peretz is taking the battle to Sharon by threatening to bring down the government by supporting a no-confidence motion in the Knesset on Wednesday if the PM does not meet with him before then to discuss the date for an early election. Meanwhile, Labor cabinet ministers also appeared worried about Peretz running a one-man show.

Amir Peretz, the Labor party’s new leader, has hit the ground running. Within a couple of days, the tough talking Peretz has shaken up both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s ruling Likud party and his fellow Laborites. The politically correct Sharon first telephoned Peretz to congratulate him and they agree to meet at the beginning of this week. Then Sharon’s office called back saying Sharon had no time until Thursday. Peretz warned that Labor would bring down the coalition by voting no confidence in Wednesday’s Knesset ballot, if Sharon did not see him before then. Peretz sources say this is a sign of things to come. Peretz people charge that Sharon has continually manipulated Labor; to the point that Labor’s Shimon Peres steered the party into Sharon’s coalition as a junior partner. The Labor mentality became: ‘If you can’t beat Sharon, join him.’ The former union boss who ruled the Histadrut Federation of Labor with an iron fist plans on taking on Sharon in a no-holds barred campaign.It is the first time an ‘authentic’ Spheradi leader, an immigrant from Morocco, has really taken control of one of Israel’s two major parties. Not only that, but of left wing Labor. The closest comparison in Israeli politics is the Likud’s David Levi, also from Morocco, who once pronounced that he was the successor of the Likud’s Menachem Begin. Levi never made it. Peretz is now riding the wave of pent-up resentment among many low income or unemployed Spheradi Israelis who traditionally vote Likud. This has naturally sent shock waves through the ruling party. Former Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the ‘rebels’ revolt against Sharon over the Gaza withdrawal, will have to take the blame. Ironically, the Peretz victory strengthens Sharon inside the Likud. Rebel MK Mickey Ratzon has changed his belligerent tone toward Sharon and now calls for unifying the party in light of the Peretz threat to siphon off Likud supporters in the development towns. There is also talk of a deal to bury the hatchet and support Sharon with the proviso that any future withdrawals be put to a national referendum. Moreover, new Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been talking about restoring welfare payments, now talks about a crash program after Sharon suddenly declared ‘a war on poverty’. Peretz himself put the fox among the chickens by promising to eliminate unemployment within two years. At a meeting with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Peretz declared if elected he would raise the minimum wage in Israel.

Sharon’s Dilemma: As for the Prime Minister, the Peretz victory will force him to make up his mind about quitting his rebellious Likud and running at the head of a new centrist party. But if the Likud needs the PM more than ever, what guarantee does Sharon have that after he wins the election, the party will again turn hostile. It appears that Sharon is determined to carry on with his approach of unilateralism… Mahmoud Abbas will never amount to a take-charge leader who will take-on the terrorists, so negotiations are out and Sharon will implement more unilateral moves including another disengagement, if he deems fit.Labor’s Consternation: While the party’s rank and file, not to speak of the Israeli media, are euphoric about the prospect of a new political superstar; there is some consternation among Labor Knesset Members and cabinet ministers. Peretz is a new broom and who knows whom he will sweep out of the party hierarchy? Shimon Peres is a case in point; Peres refused to congratulate Peretz and even charged there had been vote tampering in the primary. But after a day or so, Peres climbed aboard the Peretz bandwagon. Matan Vilnayie who pulled out of the primary at the last moment to improve prospects for Peres may now be out in the cold with Peretz. This applies to other top Laborites such as Haim Ramon and Dalia Yitzhak who backed the Labor-Likud coalition. On the other hand, Fuad Ben Eliezer is quick to point out that Peretz owes him a favor. Ben Eliezer reasons that if he had followed Vilnayie’s example and pulled out of the Labor primary to help Peres, then Peretz would not have been elected party leader. At a closed-door session, Labor cabinet ministers criticized Peretz for shooting from the hip about the economy and behaving like a political ‘rookie’ after his party victory. And so it goes, at present, Amir Peretz seems to be unifying his adversaries in the Likud and splitting some of his colleagues in Labor.

David Essing

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