Thursday, November 10, 2005

TEL AVIV — The surprise victory of Amir Peretz over former Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the race for Labor Party leader could reinvigorate the dormant Israeli left as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s ruling Likud Party heads toward a split, politicians and analysts say.

Mr. Peretz, who won Wednesday’s election with the support of 42 percent of Labor Party members to Mr. Peres’ 40 percent, said yesterday that he will push Labor’s leaders to exit Mr. Sharon’s government in order to build up the party as a credible alternative to Likud.

“We want to separate — out of a responsibility to Israeli democracy, to the future of Israel,” said Mr. Peretz in his victory speech, “and of course … to turn the Labor Party into an alternative, which will capture the government in the next elections.”

Labor, which never recovered from former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s failed peacemaking venture at Camp David in June 2000, has deferred to Mr. Sharon ever since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising two months later.

The new Labor leader’s strength lies first and foremost in the domestic realm and his appeal to underclass Israeli Jews hailing from Middle Eastern countries — a loyal constituency of Likud for the past three decades.

“Likud always won because it was able to mobilize the working class to a more antagonistic attitude toward the Arabs,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political science professor.

“The question is whether Labor can emerge as a party that can mobilize the [Arab] groups toward the peace process,” he said.

Mr. Peretz, 54, is an immigrant from Morocco who grew up in the blue-collar town of Sderot. He has championed a populist brand of economic socialism as the leader of Israel’s umbrella public-sector labor union, the Histadrut.

Likud has held a lock on voters from Sephardic, or Middle Eastern, Jewish communities that arrived in Israel during the 1950s and suffered discrimination from secular European elites associated with the Labor Party.

The ascension of Mr. Peretz as the first Middle Eastern Jew to vie for the prime ministership has the potential to break down decades of resentment.

“Many of the voters of the Likud may move over to Labor because of the election of Amir Peretz,” Likud minister Meir Sheetrit told Israel Radio. “This result could cause an upset if the Likud doesn’t straighten itself out.”

Earlier this week, Mr. Sharon was dealt a stinging rebuke from Likud parliament members still bitter about the withdrawal from Gaza when they voted against him on the nomination of two new Cabinet ministers.

Aides to the prime minister said the embarrassment increased the likelihood that the Likud Party could split.

“We’re talking about what many people in Israel called the big bang — a realignment of the political map,” said Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

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