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In Wake of Peres' Defeat, Labor Party Has Its Work Cut Out

Politics: Leader is expected to be shunted aside after election loss. That would hand new generation the reins.


JERUSALEM — Like Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who became his partner in peace, Shimon Peres has earned a reputation for surviving seemingly fatal political blows.

But after leading his Labor Party this week to an election loss that many call the most devastating in its history, Peres--a two-time Israeli prime minister and a Nobel Peace laureate--is expected to be forced to step aside and allow a new generation to take control of the party.

"Although I love him very much, that's it," close Peres ally Avraham Burg said Friday. "It's over."

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, defeated Peres this week in national elections viewed as a referendum on his government's peace policies toward the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states.

The Labor Party, which lost 11 of its 44 seats in parliament, is in disarray in the elections' wake, with likely successors to Peres trying to saddle one another with the blame.

"Just as success has many fathers, this loss is not going to be an orphan for long," said Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University.

At stake is the future of the peace effort between Israel and the Palestinians that was formally launched in Washington in 1993. Since the elections, Netanyahu has sought to reassure Israelis and the international community that he will go forward with the negotiations. But during the campaign, he dismissed the land-for-peace policy as a failure and a threat to Israel.

For the Labor leader, the loss was a stinging rejection of the policy he has guided from the outset and for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Arafat and the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The victory by the comparatively young and inexperienced Netanyahu was also a personal humiliation for Peres. At 73, he has served in every senior Israeli Cabinet office in a career spanning five decades--but he has never gained a clear victory in a national election. The defeat deprived him of what was almost certainly his last chance to shed an image here as a perennial also-ran.

Since the elections, Peres has been "very, very sad," Burg said. Peres has made no public comments or appearances since several hours before the votes were tallied.

"It is a very difficult time for him," said Burg, who chairs the Jewish Agency for immigrants. "But politically, he is the kind of person who taught the Israelis and the world about hope."

Until the announcement of final results Friday, Burg said, Peres continued to tell friends that he expected a miracle.

Political commentators and many other Israelis, meanwhile, expressed shock at what they saw as a sudden, ignominious end to a distinguished career.

"Peres is not a good politician, [but] he is a great statesman," said Idit Adi, 61, a Jerusalem artist. "He was great once he got into office, but he always had a hard time getting there. . . . I am very sad for him and for all of us."

A commentator in the newspaper Haaretz on Friday mourned Peres' defeat as that of the "last politician in Israel" with a broad vision and a national agenda unaffected by opinion polls. But Peres lacked an essential ingredient for a successful politician, the commentator added: luck.

Several analysts pointed to Peres' age as another factor that may have contributed to his defeat. In the campaign's only debate, which aired on Israeli television three days before the vote, Peres appeared tired, unsmiling and significantly older than Netanyahu, who is 46.

Health Minister Ephraim Sneh, a Labor leader, said he hopes that Peres can be persuaded to remain at the head of the party until internal elections are held next year.

"For at least this period of time, I hope he will help the party to reconstruct itself and prepare for the new context," he said.

But with Netanyahu's victory, the analysts said, the Labor Party must act quickly to find a new generation of leaders.

"For the first time in our history, this young country will be led by a politician who is younger than the country," said Shimon Schiffer, chief diplomatic correspondent for Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest newspaper. "This will force the Labor Party to renew its leadership too."

The names most frequently mentioned as future Labor leaders are Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, a retired army general, and Interior Minister Haim Ramon.

The two men, who were reported Friday to be attacking each other through surrogates, are both burdened with recent political baggage, however. Barak served as Peres' campaign manager, and Ramon headed the party's campaign information effort.

When early returns showed Peres leading for a time Wednesday night and early Thursday, both men went on television claiming a measure of credit for the apparent victory. Now, with the party's and Peres' defeat certain, they seem likely to share in the blame, at least temporarily.

"I am part of this, but there are also others" responsible for the loss, Ramon told Israeli television Friday.

Still unknown is exactly what the party's role will be as it rebuilds, but most analysts believe that reports earlier this week that Labor could be invited to join a national unity government under Netanyahu are now unlikely to prove accurate.

With many of Labor's potential allies in the small, centrist parties now likely to be invited to join Netanyahu's government, the Labor Party is believed to have little chance at this point even of winning enough support to mount an effective opposition.

As they surveyed the profoundly changed political landscape at week's end, many Israelis were still in evident shock.

"You have to understand, this is not a small party," Burg said. "For the Labor Party to lose the leadership and to lose so many seats in the same election, it is something between a disaster and an earthquake."

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