Elder statesman Peres again takes helm of Labor Party

Friday, June 20, 2003

KFAR SABA, Israel -- Israel's battered opposition Labor Party chose an old hand as its new leader Thursday, electing elder statesman Shimon Peres, the symbol of peacemaking with the Palestinians, as its chairman for one year.

Many expect Peres to try to lead his party back into Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government, restoring an unusual partnership that fell apart last November after 18 rocky months. Sharon handed Labor its worst defeat in Israel's history in a subsequent election.

"I hope this will be a new chapter for the party," Peres said.

Labor's central committee gave Peres 58 percent of the votes, compared with 28 percent for former Cabinet minister Ephraim Sneh and 17 percent for relative unknown Danny Atar, according to Israel Radio.

The 79-year-old Peres is a former prime minister and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but he has far more prestige abroad than at home. The peace process he championed dissolved into violence 33 months ago and is now discredited in the eyes of many Israelis. His penchant for parliamentary maneuvering and repeated election losses also have brought him a measure of ridicule.

He ran for prime minister five times and never won outright, and in 2000 he lost to a Likud backbencher, Moshe Katsav, in a parliamentary vote for the largely ceremonial post of Israeli president.

Despite his dismal electoral record, Peres has managed to remain an almost titanic figure in the dovish Labor Party, which favors a withdrawal from most of the West Bank and Gaza, territories Israel occupied in the 1967 war which the Palestinians want for a state.

In 2001, after Sharon's first election victory, Peres was instrumental in leading Labor into a coalition with the career hard-liner and served as foreign minister.

As violence wore on and Sharon adopted ever-escalating military tactics against the Palestinians, many critics within Labor charged that its presence was giving a hard-line government international legitimacy, with the well-respected, dovish Peres explaining its moves to the world.

Labor pulled out of the partnership in November, chose the dovish Amram Mitzna as leader and was trounced in a Jan. 28 election, seeing its parliamentary faction dwindle to 19 of the 120 seats. Sharon's Likud won 40, easily forming a government without Labor. Mitzna resigned shortly afterward, setting off the process that resulted in Peres' selection Thursday.

The U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan might serve as Peres' route back into government. Sharon's hawkish partners threaten to walk out of his coalition if he makes the concessions the plan requires -- freezing Jewish settlements and withdrawing troops from Palestinian cities -- which could clear the way for a new Labor-Likud coalition.

Analysts say that although Peres has pledged that he will not run again when Labor elects a "permanent chairman" and candidate for prime minister in a year, it would be hard for Labor to move him aside if he resumes a key role in the government.

"Who knows how long temporary is?" wrote political commentator Yossi Verter in the Haaretz daily, echoing widespread skepticism about Labor's efforts to rebuild.

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