Israeli Labour party dumps Shimon Peres

Israel's fractured and fragile government seems headed for an early election that could reinvent the country's political landscape after Shimon Peres, Nobel laureate, senior statesman and Vice-Premier, was unceremoniously dumped from his Labour Party leadership, replaced by a burly, populist union leader 30 years his junior in the country's biggest political upset in more than 25 years.

The unexpected victory of Amir Peretz over Mr. Peres in the leadership primary was announced at dawn yesterday, after a long night of vote-counting and fraud accusations. Mr. Peretz has promised to quit Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's shaky coalition government unless early elections are called, depriving Mr. Sharon of a parliamentary majority and ensuring weeks of political turmoil. The two leaders are to meet on Sunday.

Though the current Knesset's term does not expire until November of 2006, an election could be held as early as February, and would come as a public judgment on Mr. Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza this summer. Mr. Sharon is facing rebellion from Likud hard-liners who opposed pulling Israeli settlers and soldiers out of Gaza. The Prime Minister is said to be considering splitting from Likud to start another, more centrist party, which would draw on his solid public support.

Such a move would leave another political door open to the defeated Mr. Peres, who said last night he was contemplating retirement. "If Sharon does decide to split, he will now have Shimon Peres to join him," political scientist Reuven Hazan said. "We don't need a long shelf life [for a new party] -- the horizon is the next election."

For now, the Labour Party leadership has fallen to Mr. Peretz, 53, who has been chairman of the Histadrut labour federation for the past decade, and six years ago founded the small Am Ehad (One Nation) party, which he led until its recent merger with Labour.

Best known to Israelis for his thick handlebar mustache, his trademark light-blue shirt, his leading role in crippling national strikes and his impassioned rants against government privatization, Mr. Peretz has pledged to return to the party's roots and focus on helping the poor and disadvantaged.

"This is our chance and we truly intend to establish a social-democratic party," he said in his victory speech.

He is also the antithesis of the Labour establishment, long dominated by an elite of primarily European descent. Born in Morocco, the son of a factory worker, Mr. Peretz moved to Israel with his parents at the age of 4 and spent years in a desert transit camp that would later become the town of Sderot, near the Gaza border.

He began his political career on Sderot town council, was first elected to the Knesset in 1988 and is popular with new immigrants and lower-income voters. But Mr. Peretz has never held a cabinet post and only formally rejoined Labour in the past few months.

"[Labour has] had the international star, the major conference and world leader, the champagne-and-caviar type leaders. Now they need the man in the trenches, the man who can rebuild the party, the man who can reach out to people [the others] couldn't touch," Mr. Hazan said. "We're talking about the next generation. The question is, does it have something to offer?"

However, Mr. Peretz is still untested in security matters, and it's not clear he'll be able to retain the support of Labour's senior politicians. Yesterday, he visited the grave of assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in Mount Herzl cemetery, where he promised to follow the slain leader's path toward peace, reports the Globe. I.L.

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