Peres quits Labor Party to help Sharon

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2005 at 9:17 p.m.
Bitter over his ouster as Labor Party chief, Shimon Peres quit his political home of six decades Wednesday to campaign for Ariel Sharon's new party, saying the prime minister is the best choice to lead Israel to peace with the Palestinians.
Peres' defection was an important coup for Sharon in the scramble by the major parties to recruit high-profile supporters during a political realignment the past three weeks as the country prepares for parliamentary elections in March.
Many Israelis respect Peres, an 82-year-old former prime minister, as an elder statesman and peacemaker, but they remain wary of his dovish politics.
His resignation from Labor could contribute to the view that he is a political opportunist. Peres also brings with him a reputation as a perennial loser at the polls who led Labor to five electoral defeats and lost a race this month to lead the party into a sixth election.
"This has not been an easy decision for me, but I found myself faced with the contradiction between the party of which I am a member and the requirements of the political situation," Peres said. "Without ignoring the deep connection that I have to the party's historical path and its members, I must prefer the more urgent and greater consideration. . . . My party activity has come to an end."
Under a reported deal worked out with the prime minister, Peres will support Kadima, the centrist party Sharon formed last week after leaving the hard-line Likud, but he will not officially join the party and he will not run for a seat in parliament, where he has served since 1959.
In return, Sharon - if re-elected - will give Peres a senior post in his next government, possibly putting him in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states.
His voice shaking with emotion, Peres said the decision to leave Labor was not easy, but he believed Sharon was best suited to pursue a peace deal with the Palestinians.
"I am convinced that he is determined, as I am, to continue with the peace process and restart it immediately after the elections," he said. "I decided, therefore, to support his election and cooperate with him to realize these goals."
Peres' critics said he was more concerned with remaining at the center of Israeli politics than with ending the Mideast conflict.
"You can present everything as a principle ... The peace process is important, but more important is: 'Where do I stand with the peace process? Is peace being done without me?"' said Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Labor foreign minister.
Despite their differences, Peres and Sharon forged a friendship over the decades that they turned into a political partnership as Sharon fought attempts by Likud hard-liners to torpedo his Gaza withdrawal plan. Sharon has said Israel would have to leave parts of the West Bank - while maintaining major settlement blocs - in any final peace deal with the Palestinians.
Yossi Beilin, a former Peres ally who now leads the dovish Yahad Party, said Sharon has never given Peres much authority in past alliances and he doubted Sharon was interested in pursuing a real peace deal with the Palestinians.
"In my view, joining Sharon for the peace camp, for anybody from the peace camp, is a big, big, big mistake," he said.
Peres has been a major figure in Israel since the country's creation in 1948, when he was a young aide to founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. He helped create the framework for the Israeli army, developed Israel's nuclear capacity in the 1950s and was a key player in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the 1990s.
"He's been in politics ever since Truman threw the bomb on Hiroshima," Ben-Ami told The Associated Press.
Peres is feted abroad as a statesman, and shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
But at home, he is renowned for his multiple electoral defeats. He served three brief stints as prime minister, twice replacing Rabin and once as part of a rotation agreement with a hard-line rival after a deadlocked election.
He also lost a parliamentary vote for the country's ceremonial presidency, an office that would have given him a dignified exit from politics.
In another shocking defeat, this month Peres lost the Labor Party primary to union leader Amir Peretz, who immediately began working to rejuvenate the party, recruiting academics, a prominent journalist and a reclusive millionaire to join its parliamentary slate. Peretz's moves appear to be working, according to a series of favorable polls.
Peres was insulted when Peretz refused to guarantee him the second slot on Labor's parliamentary list. After Sharon quit Likud last week and formed the Kadima, Peres began talks to leave Labor.
The defection could damage the party by persuading older Labor supporters of European origin, already wary of Peretz's Middle Eastern ethnicity and his union roots, to vote for Sharon, Ben-Ami said.
Peres has jumped ship before. In 2000, rebuffed by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak in his attempt to recapture the Labor Party nomination, Peres approached the dovish Meretz Party and offered to run as its candidate. Meretz refused. And in 1965, Peres briefly followed Ben Gurion into a new party called Rafi, which was later folded into Labor.

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