- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2005

TEL AVIV — Union leader Amir Peretz, a critic of the Labor Party’s participation in a coalition with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud, is expected to push Israel toward early elections if he prevails over Shimon Peres in a Labor primary election today.

Mr. Peres, the 82-year-old deputy prime minister, is solidly favored to retain his leadership, backed by party stalwarts who believe there still is hope the coalition can make progress in peace talks with the Palestinians.

But that has not stopped analysts from speculating on how a Peretz upset would shake up the political landscape.

“On the one hand, the [Labor] party wants to continue to influence Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from within his government,” wrote the Ha’aretz newspaper in an editorial.

“The second option is more radical and more interesting. Those who want to revive Labor and redefine the distinctions between it and the Likud will prefer Amir Peretz.”

Political analysts believe a Peretz victory would stir momentum in the party to dissolve its partnership with Mr. Sharon and hold a general election in the first half of 2006. Mr. Peres, if successful, is expected to remain in the government until the scheduled date for the vote next October.

A poll by the Ma’ariv newspaper indicated Mr. Peres held nearly a 20 percentage point lead on Mr. Peretz, but Israel Radio reported that the gap is narrowing. A third candidate, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, has been polling only 15 percent.

The strength of Mr. Peres’ candidacy reflects a leadership vacuum in Labor, analysts say. The party lacks a charismatic younger politician who can compete with Mr. Peres, even though he has never led Labor to victory in five elections.

For the last decade, Mr. Peretz has headed the Histadrut, Israel’s umbrella public-sector labor union, where he has angered middle- and upper-class Israelis by embarking on several nationwide strikes.

But observers say Mr. Peretz’s economic populism, as well as his Moroccan ethnicity, might appeal to underclass voters from Middle Eastern countries.

The primary vote follows five years of ideological drift for Labor, which has traditionally championed peace talks with the Palestinians. The party was discredited in the eyes of the public after the failed Camp David summit in June 2000 gave way to the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising two months later.

Then after suffering two crushing election defeats in 2001 and 2003 — when the size of the party’s parliamentary faction sank to an all-time low — Labor watched with chagrin as Mr. Sharon unexpectedly adopted its call for a unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip.

When the smoother-than-expected withdrawal was completed in September, Mr. Sharon reaped the fruits of success while Labor was left unsure of how to distinguish itself from the prime minister.

“There’s an ideological problem in that Sharon has basically undercut the Labor Party’s approach and taken their platform,” said Sam Leman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

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