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Old Soldiers Who Never Fade: Peres Runs as Laborites Rebel

TEL AVIV — As the latest power struggle in Israel’s Labor Party unfolds, it is hard to tell without a peek at the calendar whether the year is 2004, 1994 or even 1984.

There is Shimon Peres, 81, hardly changed in his looks from the energetic prime minister of two decades ago, hotly debating with his would-be challengers for leadership of the Labor Party. There is the party itself, still arguing about chairmanship primaries and the way the country should be headed as though it were still the mighty power of decades past, and not an almost insignificant opposition party less than half the size of Likud.

The latest debate to divide the party — the fight over whether to join the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — actually might have been settled last week by Likud members (although Laborites showed no sign of ceasing their internal sparring).

In a severe blow to Sharon’s push for a unity government, delegates at last week’s Likud Party convention voted 843 to 612 to prohibit Sharon from bringing Labor into the government.

The vote left the prime minister in political limbo: It is clear that without the 19 Labor Knesset members, Sharon would have no stable majority to support his disengagement plan — now the key plank of his government and the initiative upon which he has staked his political career and legacy. On the other hand, the message of the Likud convention was unmistakable.

“This time Sharon cannot overlook the convention’s ruling,” sources identified as close to the prime minister told the press. Likud lawmakers “can now legitimately oppose the addition of Labor, claiming that they are only obeying the will of the convention.”

The Likud vote, meanwhile, did little to end the debate within Labor itself, between those who would support Sharon only on the disengagement issue and remain in the opposition, and those who would join his government at almost any price. The real focus of contention, as always, was Peres himself.

The day after the Likud vote, the Labor chairman issued a seemingly self-conflicting statement: He refused officially to dissolve the team negotiating with Likud, despite the ban imposed on Sharon by his own party, but then declared that elections are inevitable and probably will take place next year. Since he was elected chairman until the end of 2005, Peres added, he sees himself as the party’s candidate for prime minister in the next elections.

All at once, attention moved from Likud’s internal squabbles to Labor unrest over Peres.

Two senior Labor members, Matan Vilnai and former party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, quickly declared that they will contest Peres for the chairmanship. He was elected, they said, specifically because he promised not to run for the party leadership should there be elections. Other would-be candidates, including former Cabinet member Ephraim Sneh, joined Ben-Eliezer and Vilnai in challenging Peres, while Knesset members who from the start opposed entering the government accused the Labor chairman and former prime minister of humiliating the party.

Putting aside the objections to Peres, whose long shadow has stifled any attempt by a younger generation to grow and replace him, the Labor debate reflects the party’s failure to redefine itself after its staggering loss in the 2003 elections. The territories issue, long the single most important difference between Labor and Likud, is now hardly any difference at all. At a time in which Sharon leads Israel on a move to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, and builds a fence that with each court decision moves closer to the 1967 border in the West Bank, the differences between his stand and that of most of the Labor lawmakers have become miniscule.

On the economic front, Labor has a hard time differentiating itself from the tax-cutting, budget-slashing policies of Likud Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres did criticize Netanyahu’s budget recipe as “swinish capitalism,” but in fact the finance minister’s plan is not that different from what Labor ministers tried to pass in the past, or that far from what the Labor electorate — a large portion of which comes from the more affluent in Israeli society — would prefer to see done. It is the secularist, anti-clerical Shinui Party that has emerged as the standard-bearer for the rage within Israel’s middle class toward the ultra-Orthodox, thus stealing many ersatz Labor voters.

The party of Ben-Gurion and Rabin finds itself with no clear, independent agenda, and led by an octogenerian who, many in the party think, will sell it down the river for the foreign minister’s post that Sharon is so eager to give him.

As Labor braced itself for a collision between Peres and the Ben-Eliezer-Vilnai-Sneh camp, and Sharon was licked his wounds from the Likud convention, the future of the disengagement plan seemed cloudy. The relocation and compensation board, in charge of settling accounts with people who would be evacuated from Gaza, formally began working this week. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the Israeli army would complete its preparations for disengagement by the end of next month. But no one could really say whether all this will come about or give way to elections next year.

No wonder former prime minister Ehud Barak, who still sees himself as the man who would lead Labor back to power (“The two things I proved I can do,” Barak tells journalists in private talks, “are succeed Peres and beat Netanyahu”), did not cancel his plans for the week: As everybody in Israel began talking elections, the former prime minister traveled to Alaska for a vacation.

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