- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2005

JERUSALEM — Labor Party leader Shimon Peres said today he suspects fraud in the party’s primary and called for an internal investigation after partial results showed the elder statesman losing a race he was expected to win.

Mr. Peres made his demand at a 3:15 a.m. press conference as the party was compiling votes from yesterday’s primary, which will have deep implications for the shaky governing coalition of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Labor is the junior member of the government.

With more than three-quarters of the votes counted, challenger Amir Peretz held a narrow lead over Mr. Peres. The partial results showed Mr. Peretz with 24,965, or 41.2 percent, to 24,863, or 41.1 percent, for Mr. Peres. A third candidate, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, trailed with 17 percent and conceded the race. Opinion polls had forecast a decisive Peres victory.

Mr. Peres did not directly accuse his main challenger of foul play, but said reports of wrongdoing by his opponent’s supporters had to be checked.

“At this stage, we ask to check the complaints,” he said. “We are turning to the legal institutions of the party to look into this.”

Mr. Peretz did not immediately respond to the accusations, but Israel Radio said his supporters already were claiming victory.

As the votes poured in early today, his supporters burst into loud cheers when he overtook Mr. Peres for the first time in the tally and Israel Radio reported that he was planning an announcement.

Mr. Peres, a former prime minister who is now vice prime minister, wants to keep Labor in the government until elections scheduled in November 2006.

Mr. Peretz, a fiery union leader, wants to steer the party back to its socialist roots, pull out of the coalition and force early elections. His message has resonated with Israelis disenfranchised by government cuts in social spending and the country’s growing gap between rich and poor.

Whatever the outcome, the close contest was sure to embarrass Mr. Peres, who has lost a string of important elections throughout his six-decade political career. Opinion polls published this week predicted a Peres victory as large as 28 percentage points.

The 82-year-old politician led Labor into the government this year to shore up support for Mr. Sharon’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The pullout divided the prime minister’s Likud Party, and without Labor’s support, the plan probably could not have been carried out.

Mr. Peres, who won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for forging an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians, believes that remaining in the coalition will let him push forward with peace efforts.

Since the Gaza pullout was completed in September, he has led negotiations with the Palestinians to resolve key disputes, such as control over Gaza’s borders, and to help rebuild the coastal territory’s shattered economy.

“This is a coalition that changed its face totally. Don’t forget that a year ago the coalition said that it would not withdraw from Gaza,” he said. “We changed the agenda.”

Mr. Peretz says that with the Gaza withdrawal complete, the party should pull out of the government and focus on the economy. Labor has adopted more free-market economic policies in recent years, drawing criticism from its traditional supporters in the unions, working class and farming sectors.

“I think that there are a lot of people waiting for the moment that someone will fight for their right to make a living with respect, to grow old with respect,” Mr. Peretz said. “They see that the process is under way, and I hope that the Labor Party members will not stop the social revolution.”

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