Likud Party leaders decided Wednesday to unite in the face of Amir Peretz’s election as Labor Party leader, a move that some fear could be a serious challenge if he draws votes from Likud’s traditional Sephardi base.
Likud leaders stressed that their party must remain united after Likud primary elections that are expected to take place early next year. Not only does Peretz pose a potential strong challenge to their leadership, but Likud said in a statement that he has "radical plans, which would jeopardize Israel’s security and economy."
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told party leaders that if Peretz carries through on his promise to withdraw Labor from the coalition government, he favored delaying the new election that would result as long as possible.
"We need time to allow Peretz to continue losing support," he was quoted as saying. The prospect that Peretz might self-destruct given time is a concern of many Labor supporters as well, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
"Peretz has chosen to talk about going back to the Oslo [peace] process and about starting the process of pulling people from the West Bank," he said. "He is mostly shooting from the hip and does not seem to be someone who is able to reach out to a wider radius [of Israelis]."
Although Peretz spoke in his victory speech about the need to address socio-economic issues, such as the widening gap between rich and poor in Israel, he has not returned to that theme. Instead, said Steinberg, "he has given two or three prominent speeches on political issues – and he has little command of the details."
"Labor Party leaders want him to stop," Steinberg added. "They are afraid there won’t be a distinction between Labor and [the leftist] Meretz, so why would people vote for Labor?"
One Meretz lawmaker, Yossi Sarid, made the same observations and Wednesday proposed that Meretz and Labor merge.
"If Amir Peretz succeeds in changing the party in his image, then I believe that this step that I am proposing is the correct one to take," Sarid said on Israel Radio.
But leaders of both Labor and Meretz flatly ruled out such a union. Labor Party leader Ephraim Sneh said his party’s positions on the peace process are not similar to those of Meretz and its leader, Yossi Beilin, an author of the controversial Geneva Accords.
"We are a centrist party, loyal to security," Sneh was quoted as saying.
Steinberg said Labor Party leaders are stressing the need for Peretz to "emphasize economic and social issues and not a return to Oslo: and yet he is putting that on the top of his agenda."
And he is doing it at a time when Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom is visiting his birth country, Tunisia, thus becoming the highest-ranking Israeli official to visit the Arab country. "The Tunisian visit is the headline people see and [it emphasizes that] Peretz has no experience" in foreign policy, Steinberg said.
"The whole thing is very confusing," he said of Peretz’s strategy.
Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Middle East Office in Jerusalem, expressed similar bewilderment.
"He has managed to wade in two feet first and muddied his prospects," he said of Peretz. "He made himself look like a Beilin with a mustache and taken a position that is way to the left. He can talk of the hope for peace, but when he talks of the Oslo path being the right one while people are mourning more than 1,000 people who have been killed [in Palestinian terrorist attacks], I’m not sure that will resonate very well."
At the Likud meeting, Sharon declined to say whether he intended to remain in the party or form his own centrist party. David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he believes Sharon would "fight from within to retain control of the [Likud] Party." He noted that Sharon succeeded in beating back a recent attempt by Netanyahu to advance elections against Sharon’s wishes.
A poll published Wednesday by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that Sharon has a 19 percent lead over Netanyahu among Likud voters, up from 14 percent six weeks ago.