Even as Labor voters went to the polls Wednesday to select the party’s next leader, Israelis appeared to be paying more attention to speculation that there might be early general elections and that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might bolt Likud to form a new party.
There was concern, too, that a victory for Histadrut Labor Federation chief Amir Peretz (the strongest challenger to incumbent Labor Party leader Shimon Peres for the chairmanship) would precipitate early elections because Peretz had pledged to immediately pull Labor out of Sharon’s coalition government.
But pollsters were predicting that Peres, 82, who began political life as an aide to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, would take the primary. A Geocartography poll broadcast on Channel 10 had Peres winning by as much as 28 percent.
To help ensure a victory Peres (who has lost five elections for prime minister and one for president, and who had not won an election since defeating Yitzchak Rabin for the Labor leadership in 1988) convinced one of his opponents, Matan Vilnai, to drop out of the race and support him.
In return, Peres offered Vilnai the post of science minister (to which he was confirmed Monday) and promised to make the former general defense minister should he win the general election.
Although Peres said he believed Labor had a "good chance of winning the general election," many political observers believe that if Sharon remains Likud’s leader, he again will lead his party to victory.
"A repeat of the current coalition is then most likely," said Yossi Alpher, a political analyst.
But Alpher noted many other variables, among them that Sharon would lose the Likud chairmanship in a primary battle; that illness could befall either Peres or Sharon, who is 77; or that Sharon could form a new party that would fail in the general election.
Naomi Blumenthal, a Likud member of the Knesset, said although "no one wants early elections … it seems today that they are inevitable."
"It seems there will be an understanding about certain dates for the election that are agreeable with all the parties," she said. "It would be around May or June."
Once the parties agree on a date, she said, the budget would pass without much difficulty.
Alpher noted, however, that Knesset members of Likud voted against three of Sharon’s cabinet appointments this week, and thus the prime minister could not be assured of their support for the budget or any other measure.
The Likud members who voted against the cabinet appointments were the same ones who opposed the Gaza withdrawal. They indicated that they opposed the appointments because Sharon nominated two of them as a political payback for their support of his disengagement plan.
Observers said that despite reports this week that Sharon was ready to form a new party to be called Ein Li Eretz Aheret (I Have No Other Land), after the popular song by Ehud Manor, it was unlikely that he would act until his budget passed. That is not expected until next month at the earliest.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, said talk of Sharon creating a new political party was a "trial balloon."
"It is not the most desirable option and [Sharon] uses it as a threat," he said. "It has worked before. Likud Party functionaries don’t want to lose their access to government funds and positions. So by threatening to create a different party, Sharon is threatening their interests" in order to keep them in line behind him.
Labor voters who selected Peres as their party chairman were seen opting for a "holding action" until Sharon leaves the scene and they can field a candidate capable of generating enough support to win the general election, according to many analysts.
But Steinberg said he can see no Labor Party member now on the scene is who capable of presenting a "coherent position that is acceptable to the Israeli consensus" and that is different from Likud.
Avraham Diskin, a professor at the Hebrew University, said Peres lives for politics. Diskin said despite his losses, Peres keeps bouncing back because "there is no one who really who has ultimate charisma and ultimate ability. He’s more respected today. People now are more generous with him.
"He knows how to find his way," Diskin said, "and he’s ready to compromise not only with [the late Palestinian Authority President Yasir] Arafat but also with Sharon. He’s really pragmatic. He’s not some sort of dovish lunatic, which is what it seemed in the past."
Colette Avital, a Labor Party member of the Knesset, agreed that time has been good to Peres, making him into an "international figure and statesman."
"After many years of making him look like a loser and not credible, his image has changed with the Israeli public at large," she said. "There was a time he was much more admired abroad than at home … The fact that he showed national responsibility at the expense of personal or party interests" by joining the coalition won him respect.
"We had young leaders, and in the end both of them failed," Avital said, referring to Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor’s Ehud Barak. "The public, both general and in Labor, wanted to come back to the elder statesman."
She noted that Labor with Peres at the helm was seen in the polls as capturing the most number of Knesset seats of any of his rivals.
But Sam Lehman Wilzig, a professor at Bar Ilan University, said Labor is in a quandary with Sharon as head of Likud because he has "basically undercut their approach and taken their platform. There’s not too much they can run on when Sharon has taken their platform. Sharon has moved into the Labor camp from an ideological standpoint, and it’s very hard for them to differentiate themselves."
But Steinberg disagreed, saying Sharon "has adopted a consensus position because Likud has always favored compromise."
"Even after Sharon is gone, the leadership contest will continue to be within the Likud Party," he insisted.
Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report.