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Party Hands Israel's Peres Bitter Defeat

May 15, 1997|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEL AVIV — The saddest and perhaps most telling moment came even before the Labor Party vote that denied former Prime Minister Shimon Peres an honorary position as party president.

In a bitter speech just before party convention delegates voted this week on whether to discuss appointing him to the new post, Peres, who led Labor to five election defeats, asked rhetorically: "Am I a loser?"

"Yes," came the humiliating response, shouted by a handful of delegates throughout the crowded auditorium.

Party members then effectively killed the presidency proposal, voting overwhelmingly to put off debate on it until well after a new party leadership is chosen next month. Peres had said earlier that unless the vote was held during the party's three-day convention, which ends today, he would not accept the position.

The loss, underscored by the insult from party members, marked an ignominious end to Peres' formal leadership of Labor, which will choose its new chairman and candidate for prime minister June 3. The decisive vote was also a key victory for former army Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, the man heavily favored to succeed Peres as party leader.

To some extent at least, Peres brought the rejection upon himself, stubbornly struggling to hang on to a policymaking role after being turned out of office in last year's election loss to Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Even after the vote, Peres insisted that he still has a role to play.

"I have a title and I have a job," he said Wednesday. "The title is Shimon Peres, and the job is to fight for peace."

Nonetheless, the convention vote spells "the end of the prolonged end" for Peres, said Avraham Burg, a Peres confidant and former parliament member. "Shimon Peres' political end came with the results of the election last year, but he tried to hold on to the leadership. It didn't work."

In his own convention speech, Barak praised Peres for his "experience, inspiration and greatness" but argued that naming him to Labor's presidency would create rival centers of power in the party.

Many attending the convention here, even some who voted with Barak, appeared ill at ease with the infighting that preceded the vote and with the decision to close the door on a distinguished party elder.

"Why is Shimon humiliating himself like this?" asked Barak delegate Yudit Gal, 40. "I love him very much, but it's time for him to go."

Lawmaker Ophir Pines, who wore a Barak sticker, called the episode a tragedy for Peres and the party.

"Shimon Peres is a great man, but he doesn't know how to draw the lines for himself, when to leave political life," Pines said. "We want to give him all the honor, all the influence, but we cannot give him any more the leadership of this party."

Even as it turns to a new generation of leaders, however, the Labor Party signaled it will continue on the peace-making course set by Peres and others.

For the first time, delegates approved adding to its platform a statement recognizing the Palestinian right to self-determination, including the establishment of a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty.

Such a state, the party said, would not be allowed to have an army, to establish military alliances with other nations or to control its own airspace. That platform plank was similar to statements made in recent months by Netanyahu and other senior officials within his Likud-led government.

Peres, 73, an architect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, won a Nobel Peace Prize for that achievement, sharing the honor with the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Peres served twice as prime minister, first in a power-sharing arrangement with the Likud Party in the 1980s, then again after Rabin was assassinated in 1995.

But he never led the party to victory in his own right, marring his illustrious political and diplomatic career with the stigma of a perennial also-ran.

He waited until September to announce that he would not run again for prime minister and then flirted openly for months with the idea of joining Netanyahu in a national unity government to rescue the flagging peace process.

After Netanyahu's government was tainted this spring by an influence-peddling scandal, Peres, prodded by other Labor Party leaders, finally said he would no longer consider a partnership.

His supporters, chiefly Labor Party General Secretary Nissim Zvili, then came up with the plan to create the new position for him.

But Barak sought to ensure that the post would hold no real power, and Peres said he would not consider a role without authority.

Supporters insisted after the vote that Peres could continue to contribute, particularly to the peace process that he nurtured with creativity and passion.

But they too recognized the significance of the generational change.

"The world belongs to the young," delegate Avraham Levi, 62, said sadly as he sat alone during a break. "Not to me and not to him."

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