JERUSALEM — Labor Party leader Shimon Peres won the chance Tuesday to form a new Israeli government that is pledged to open the way for historic peace talks with Palestinians.
With a handshake and a nod, Peres received a written mandate from Chaim Herzog, the country's ceremonial president, who tapped the 66-year-old leader after three days of consultation with representatives of all Israel's parliamentary parties.
If Peres pieces together a coalition--not an easy task given the numerous divisions in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament--he will replace Yitzhak Shamir, head of the rightist Likud Party, as prime minister. Shamir's rule was put in jeopardy when Peres successfully initiated a no-confidence vote against him last week.
"Simple logic forces the giving of a chance to a different way," Herzog said. "The party that led the confrontation toward the toppling of the government has the right to receive a chance to present the Knesset its way and to ask for the Knesset's faith."
In a televised response to Herzog, Peres said, "I will to my best ability work to form the government as quickly as possible, as widely based as possible, united on the issues of peace, security and (Soviet Jewish) immigration, while moving closer to the whole nation's hearts."
He told reporters that, as prime minister, he would take up American offers to hold peace talks with Palestinians.
"We shall reply affirmatively to the proposal," he said.
In reply to a question on how he expected to form a government out of disparate political groups, Peres answered: "I don't think we have to overcome all the differences between the parties. We can create common ground."
This is the first time in 13 years that Labor has the chance of taking hold of government without joining Likud in a coalition. Peres was prime minister between 1984 and 1986 on a rotation basis with Shamir.
Shamir's camp put on a stoic face.
"It's a blow," asserted Yosef Ben-Aharon, a top aide of Shamir's. "Shamir would like to continue, and he is not pleased to see Peres in his chair, but he was not despondent."
A statement from the prime minister's office said that Shamir, confident that Peres will fail, will continue to try to line up allies for a coalition of his own.
Shamir's old coalition tripped on the issue of an American-brokered plan for peace. Peres and center-left Labor insisted that Shamir accept a three-month-old invitation from U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III to attend preliminary peace talks with American and Egyptian officials. The preliminary peace talks are designed to work out a list of Palestinian negotiators for the first-ever peace talks between Israel and Palestinians.
But Shamir balked, and Peres engineered the no-confidence vote.
Peres has pledged to take up Baker's offer.
For Peres personally, the nomination marked a step in a notable political comeback. He has failed to win a general election in four tries and was all but written off as a force after the 1988 elections, when Likud won a slim plurality. For much of the past 15 months, he was overshadowed on the national scene by party colleague Yitzhak Rabin, the defense minister.
But Peres held tight to the reins of Labor and struck quickly when Shamir was under attack in his own party for making peace overtures. Peres laid the foundation for support among at least one key religious party by offering generous funding for religious schools from his Finance Ministry base.
Peres will need at least 61 backers to underwrite a working coalition. Herzog gave him 21 days to succeed, a period customarily extended to six weeks. If he fails, Shamir may be given a chance. Should coalition talks drag on inconclusively, Herzog may call for new elections.