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Victorious Labor Leader Amir Peretz: 'I Will Pull Labor Party Immediately Out Of Sharon's Government'

In Stunning Upset, Union Leader Peretz Defeats Shimon Peres For Labor Party Leadership

Shimon Peres Challenges Close Election Result; PM Sharon To Meet Peretz On Sunday

Amir Peretz | Shimon Peres

Amir Peretz is the new leader of Israel's Labor party. Peretz, the head of the powerful Histadrut Federation of Labor narrowly defeated the incumbent Shimon Peres in the Labor party primary. The Histadrut leader garnered 42% of the vote to 40% for Peres who was the front-runner during the campaign but Peres has challenged the results. Peretz, who ran on a strong socialist platform, declared his first goal is to take Labor out of the government coalition as soon as possible. In congratulating Peretz, Prime Minister Sharon invited the victor to meet on Sunday.

'My first goal is to pull the Labor Party immediately out of Prime Minister Sharon's coalition government'. That was the promise of the newly elected Labor party leader Amir Peretz after his electrifying victory over Shimon Peres. Peretz, who galvanized the support of his powerful Histadrut Federation of Labor, beat Peres by 42% to 40% in the Labor party primary. The union leader was actually brought back into the Labor party fold by Shimon Peres as a counter to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak; now he is likely to be ruing the day he did. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Peretz the outsider, has now won the Labor jackpot. But he could face strong opposition in the party on bolting Sharon's coalition. Labor holds eight cabinet portfolios with Shimon Peres acting as Vice-Premier and filling a key role in contacts with the Palestinians. Without the support of Labor in the coalition, Sharon could not have carried out the withdrawal from Gaza recently. Peretz will need the approval of the Labor party convention to bolt the coalition and he says: 'I expect the party to give me full backing to implement my policies that won me the primary'.Early Election: If the new Labor leader gets his way an early election is in the offing. Peretz called on his rivals in Labor to rally behind him declaring it is possible to win the next general election. He accuses Sharon of collaborating with former Finance Minister Bibi Netanyahu in bringing many poor working families to the brink of disaster while pouring money into the settlements. At the same time, Peretz calls himself a proud socialist who supports a free market economy – 'where the rights of workers are preserved, not just those of the millionaires'. (And this personal note: several years ago, Ireland's Ambassador to Israel Patrick Hennessy, gave a superb lecture in the Knesset describing how government, employers and trade unions in Ireland had cooperated in propelling Ireland's backward economy into a powerhouse of high- tech with one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world. I later related this in a conversation with Amir Peretz who then met with Ambassador Hennessy who invited him to visit Ireland. On his return, Amir Peretz said he was greatly impressed with the Irish experience and how government, employers and the unions could pull together in the national interest.) The writing is on the wall and from the opposition, the National Religious Party has now called on Sharon to work out a date for an early election before next November's scheduled ballot. As for Amir Peretz, he is fifty- four years old and of Moroccan origin. He resides in the Negev town of Sderot which has often been targeted by Qassam rockets launched just a few kilometers away by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip. He first served as a Labor MK but quit accusing Labor of betraying its socialist traditions. Peretz then formed his own splinter party that won three seats in the last election before Peres eased him back into Labor. Peres supporters now speak privately of a Trojan horse syndrome.Likud: In a congratulatory telephone call, Ariel Sharon has invited Peretz to meet at the PM's office on Sunday. If Sharon does offer Peretz to remain in the coalition there is slim chance the new Labor leader will agree. The Peretz victory will also press Sharon to make up his mind about whether to remain in the Likud or leave to form his own centrist party in light of the hostility he faces in the ruling party. The surprising support for Peretz in Labor is a red light warning that many Israeli voters are more concerned about the distressing figures about poverty than they are about the Palestinian issue. Peretz for example has absolutely no experience in security and foreign affairs. He is, what you see - an eloquent, fiery orator who appeals to organized Labor and who could bite into the traditional Sephardi votes of the Likud and Shas. However, the mobilization of the Histadrut in support of Peretz is another factor that led to his victory. In any case, Likudniks also have something to think about when it comes to the Sharon-Netanyahu confrontation. If criticism of Netanyahu's slashing of social welfare has become a key factor with voters, it may hurt the former Finance Minister and work to Sharon's benefit. It may also force Sharon to decide once and for all whether or not to quit the Likud and form a new centrist party to run in the next election.

New Political Map: The Peretz victory will take Labor further to the left wing of Israeli politics. Labor had joined Sharon's coalition for the sole purpose of implementing the Gaza withdrawal and has been prodding the Prime Minister to increase more welfare spending in the new state budget drafted by Netanyahu before he resigned in protest over the disengagement. Peres labeled Netanyahu's policies 'swinish capitalism' and in fact, the new Finance Minister Ehud Olmert has been making some alterations. On foreign policy, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon had moved close enough to the center to forge a modus operandi for dealing with the Palestinians. It amounted to negotiating the Roadmap if the Palestinian Authority got serious about coping with terrorism (again the Irish example but in another context). But if Peretz, from the far left of Labor gets his way, that partnership will end and the center, that perhaps represents a majority of Israelis, will be vacant.This raises the possibility of splits in the Likud and Labor. Shinui leader Tommy Lapid who aspires to occupy the center is delighted with the Peretz victory. Lapid believes it increases Shinui's election prospects and chances for joining a future Sharon coalition.Footnote: the political chessboard grows more complicated by the day. Yuval Rabin, the son of Israel's assassinated leader, has thrown his support behind Ariel Sharon. Yuval Rabin told Channel One TV that 'Sharon is the right man in the right place'. It was an 'historical irony' that Sharon, who was one of Yitzhak Rabin's severest critics, was now evacuating settlements and facing threats to his life. Yuval Rabin said he would never vote Likud but if there were two ballots, one for PM and another for the party, he would vote Sharon.

David Essing

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