Labour threat to Sharon emerges

Amir Peretz, the party's new leader, may force early elections that could influence Israel's approach to peace.

What the Bush administration thought might be an opportune moment to lead Israelis and Palestinians back to the road map for Middle East peace is instead shaping into a period of uncertainty. Israel is waking up to the reality of having a feisty new opposition leader, Amir Peretz, who may force early elections that could potentially unseat Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In a relatively rare trip to the region, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived here Sunday on a mission timed to coincide with commemorating the 10th anniversary of the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was shot at a peace rally.

With the exception of the year-plus rule of Ehud Barak, no Labour Party leader since Rabin has been able to convince a critical mass of Israelis to choose the party that is most eager to make territorial concessions in return for peace.

And while Mr. Peretz vowed at a rally in Rabin's memory that he would carry on the slain peacemaker's vision as embodied in the Oslo Peace Accords, many observers here say Israelis are not ready to embrace a man with such ambitiously leftist policies, from privatization to negotiations with the Palestinians through a framework that many no long accept.

Indeed, the changed political climate brought on by Peretz's surprise trouncing last Thursday of former Labour Party leader Shimon Peres - the octogenarian who both worked and competed with Rabin - is a mix of issues domestic and foreign.

Peretz, a man with a rabble-rousing if steamrolling reputation as a labor-union leader in a country with a well-organized workers' federation, climbed to the top of the Labour Party with the help of Peres. Peres brought in Peretz to get the younger man to reunite his Am Ehad (One People) Party with Labour.

Am Ehad was formed as a sort of protest against a Labour Party that leftists said was no longer fulfilling the progressive vision of social change. Peretz, whose name here is synonymous with last-minute strikes and work stoppages, once told The Monitor in an interview that he was proud to be called "the last Socialist."

While he maintains his working man's outlook on socieconomic issues - and opposed some of the Reaganesque reforms of the last finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu - Peretz raised a different flag in his bid to lead the Labour Party.

Foremost, he didn't believe in riding shotgun with the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "The era of unity governments is at an end. It's not good for democracy," Peretz said over the weekend on Israel's Channel Two's "Meet the Press."

"Sharon needs to understand that I am willing to do everything with him for an agreement for the good of Israel, in order to prevent uncertainty," said Peretz, whose deep-pile mustache evokes a style more popular in neighboring Arab countries than here, where mainstream politicians tend to dress in Western style.

But Peretz has always cultivated an underdog identity. Born in Morocco, he moved to Israel with his parents at the age of four. He is a sort of star of the Sephardic underclass, someone who has risen against the odds of having grown up in the less privileged ranks of Israelis.

Peretz says he embraces Oslo and would happily include Israeli-Arab political parties in a coalition government run by him in order to stay in power. The Likud Party seized on that comment, portraying him as a radical leftist who would make historical territorial concessions on behalf of the Jewish state without a "Jewish majority." "The Arabs are not ruled out of any coalition," Peretz said. "I think that if an Arab agrees to be a minister in the government, it would decrease tensions in the country."

Efraim Inbar, the head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, describes Peretz as "a young man with old-fashioned policies." Unlike a "New Democrat" in the US or "New Labour" in Britain, Professor Inbar notes, Peretz has not adjusted his view of the need for social welfare to 21st-century free-market ideals.

And by speaking about returning to the Oslo path, one that is viewed as a failure even by many pro-peace Israelis, he may not win over large sectors of the voting public.

"He spoke in favor of Oslo. Who speaks in favor of Oslo anymore?" quips Inbar. "If he goes on with these types of economic policy and foreign policy, I don't think he will draw the middle of Israeli society."

"I'm not sure he presents such a challenge to the Likud," Inbar says. "And if he is to challenge Sharon, Peretz has to implement some more centrist policies, both on defense and on economic issues."

That may be true in the long term. But in the short term, Peretz is promoting a vote Wednesday to dissolve the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Peretz said he would consider delaying if Sharon would meet him to discuss a date for early elections. Sharon, however, cancelled a key meeting Sunday with Peretz, raising the likelihood that the new Labour leader would work to bring down the government this week.

Given such uncertainty, Rice's suggestions - that Israel help facilitate Palestinian elections in January and allow for more freedom of movement, while asking Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to fight terror - are likely to be viewed as hypothetical ones.

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