JERUSALEM — Roni Milo, Tel Aviv's mayor and a leading moderate on Middle East peace in the Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, announced Monday that he will seek Israel's top office in 2000 at the head of a new centrist party.
The announcement by Milo--a contemporary of Netanyahu and long considered a potential rival to the Likud leader--came as the prime minister held critical talks in London on a U.S. plan to break the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. It also appeared timed to take advantage of escalating concerns here over what political commentators are calling a "culture war," the widening rifts between religious and secular Jews in Israel.
An outspoken opponent of the growing influence of religious parties in the government, Milo, 48, said his announcement that he will seek the post of prime minister was triggered in part by continuing controversy here over a canceled modern dance performance at last week's 50th anniversary gala.
The Batsheva troupe withdrew rather than accede to demands by ultra-Orthodox politicians to change part of its program in which dancers, moving to the tune of a religious song, were to partially disrobe. Although many Israelis, not just the religious, have privately questioned the propriety of the planned performance, Milo on Monday put himself on the side of the dancers and others who have angrily accused religious leaders of trying to curtail artistic expression.
Calling the incident "a crisis point" in the nation's development, Milo said one of his aims for the still-unnamed party is "to neutralize the leverage of religious extremists, which is used today by a group which is not large but enjoys great political power." Several small religious parties constitute a significant portion of Netanyahu's ruling coalition.
Political analysts said Milo's emphasis on the religious-secular issue could be an attempt to steal it from Ehud Barak, the Labor Party candidate. Barak is expected to call soon for religious young men to be required to serve in the Israeli military or perform alternative national service; young men studying in Jewish seminaries now are routinely exempted from mandatory army service.
But several analysts and several worried Labor Party members said Milo's entry into the race, far from weakening Netanyahu, could end up splitting the moderate vote and siphoning support from Barak.
"This doesn't weaken Likud at all because Milo has not really been Likud for a long time--he's been running on a center-left ticket for quite a while," said Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Tel Aviv's Bar Ilan University. "The votes he'd take away would otherwise go to Barak."
A veteran of five Israeli parliaments before his election to the Tel Aviv mayoralty in 1993, Milo has served three times as a Cabinet minister, holding the environment, welfare and police portfolios. In the early 1990s, he broke ranks with Likud to support peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization. On Monday, he spoke only briefly about the peace process but said he believes that a settlement could yet be reached with the Palestinians.