- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

TEL AVIV — Former Labor Party chief Shimon Peres resigned from the party he led over three decades to endorse Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s bid for re-election, saying he is the most capable of pursuing peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The announcement ended a week of speculation that Israel’s best-known dove, embittered after narrowly losing the Labor leadership primary to Amir Peretz last month, would team up with Mr. Sharon after the prime minister abandoned the Likud Party to set up a centrist group called Kadima, Hebrew for “Forward.”

“This is a difficult day for me,” Mr. Peres said at a press conference, his voice faltering.

“I have spoken with [Mr. Sharon,] and I am convinced that he is determined to continue the peace process and to start that process immediately after his re-election,” Mr. Peres said.

The resignation is the latest in a chain reaction of upheavals that is remaking the map of Israeli politics.

Mr. Peres, 82, began his political career as a young aide to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister.

Mr. Peres led the Labor Party in five election campaigns. He served three brief stints as prime minister, and he shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for their roles in peace negotiations.

Mr. Peres’ latest move extends the collaboration between two elder statesman of Israeli politics who, after years of occupying opposite ends of the country’s political divide, formed a coalition last year to execute the withdrawal of Israeli troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Analysts said Mr. Peres’ endorsement is likely to win converts to Mr. Sharon’s party from longtime Labor faithful.

Israeli newspapers, however, reported that Mr. Sharon’s political advisers were concerned that Mr. Peres’ announcement, plus the defection of two Labor ministers, would give the new party too strong a left-wing image.

Mr. Peres is expected to join Mr. Sharon’s Cabinet if the prime minister is re-elected, but the former Labor leader — who never has won an election outright — stopped short of joining the new party.

The decision means that the parliamentary career of Israel’s longest-serving legislator will come to an end next year after 46 years.

“There’s no question that he’s a figure with historic dimensions, and he can afford to be above politics,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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