ISRAEL'S Labor Party head, Shimon Peres, is fighting for his political life as he prepares to face his adversary, Yitzhak Rabin, in a struggle for the party leadership. At a party bureau meeting slated for June 28, Mr. Rabin is expected to demand an early contest with Mr. Peres for the leadership. Peres is determined to put it off.
Peres's failure to form a narrow Labor-led coalition after the fall of the Likud-Labor ``national unity government'' in mid-March has forced his party into the opposition and plunged it into deep crisis.
Party activists are calling for a reexamination of the party's platform and its message to the public, and clamoring for a leadership change.
Only by replacing Peres, they argue, can the party regroup under a clear ideological banner, work to topple Israel's right-wing government led by the Likud, and wage an effective campaign in subsequent elections.
``Peres has become ballast, weighing down the party; he has to go,'' says Aryeh Eliav, a left-leaning Labor Knesset (parliament) member who has declared his support for Rabin. ``He has to take responsibility for the moves he's made, and can't go on saying that we're all to blame. He has failed on the conceptual, tactical, and strategic levels.''
In recent weeks, Rabin has come forward as Peres's main challenger. Much of the support for him stems from a feeling that he is a better electoral asset, with greater popularity than Peres in public opinion polls.
Rabin's nuts-and-bolts political realism and his tough approach to security matters appeal to a segment of the Israeli electorate that is put off by what they perceive as Peres's excessive tilt to the left, though both leaders have similar political ideas.
A longstanding personal feud between the two men has burst into the open; both politicians fired broadsides at each other in recent radio interviews.
Rabin said Peres should take responsibility for the failed attempt to replace the unity government by a Labor-led coalition. Peres said Rabin was a partner to the entire maneuver and could not disassociate himself from the outcome.
Peres precipitated the downfall of the previous ``national unity'' government when he clashed head-on with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir after Mr. Shamir stalled on answering questions from United States Secretary of State James Baker III regarding a Palestinian-Israeli dialogue in Cairo.
After bringing down the government in a parliamentary no-confidence motion, Peres set out to put together an unlikely coalition of center, religious, and left-wing parties. When he failed, knives were drawn in the Labor Party. Demands were heard for Peres's replacement by a new leader who could devise a winning strategy for a party that has failed to win an election since it lost power to the Likud Party in 1977.
There has been a steady erosion of support for Peres in recent weeks as increasing numbers of party members demand that he own up to his failure and resign.
The groundswell of support for Rabin as an alternative leader has spread to dovish party members known for their previous association with Peres.
A group of Knesset members close to Peres met with him June 25 and advised him to step down gracefully and avoid an ugly fight with Rabin, a battle they said would tear the party apart and ultimately lead to a humiliating defeat for Peres.
``Such a contest would mean suicide for the party,'' says Haim Ramon, one of the Knesset members who attended the meeting.
But Peres has stubbornly refused to resign, arguing that he has no reason to pay a price for his actions, which he says were taken in keeping with the party's platform and in a sincere pursuit of peace.
Rabin, who has been building support among the rank and file membership, is girding for battle. Many observers say Peres is misreading the political map in his own party, obstinately refusing to face changing realities.
``At this point, Peres does not appear to be acting rationally, and is behaving like a wounded animal,'' said Susan Hattis-Rolef, a member of the party's political council and editor of Spectrum, the Labor movement's English language monthly.
``Peres is not a commodity you can sell anymore, and that's a problem,'' says Ms. Hattis-Rolef.
Peres's readiness to hold talks with Palestinians linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization has been repeatedly depicted by the Likud as an attempt to ``sneak the PLO in through the back door'' - a move which the Likud says would lead to negotiations on establishment of a Palestinian state that would be a mortal danger to Israel.
Though Rabin shares Peres's views, they have been offset by his tough crackdown as defense minister on the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
His blunt statements on putting down the revolt and his authorization of Army beatings, house demolitions, and expulsions of Palestinian activists make him a more attractive candidate to many Israeli voters who would otherwise prefer the Likud to a Labor Party led by Peres.
The prospect of a damaging fight between the two volatile party leaders has led some Labor members to consider drafting a third candidate to replace them both. Several names of younger party members have been put forward, though none have come forward yet to present their candidacy.
In his struggle to beat back Rabin's onslaught, Peres has accused him of ``representing the past.'' But for many of the rank and file, Peres is finished and Rabin remains the only realistic hope for the future.
Says a party activist: ``No one in the next generation of party leaders is particularly exciting, so people are opting for the only serious candidate left in the field, and that's Rabin.''