JERUSALEM — Shimon Peres, Nobel peace laureate and perennial election loser, was handed yet another defeat Thursday when Israeli legislators blocked his attempt to run for prime minister in an upcoming special election.
The architect of Israel's landmark peace process with the Palestinians was rebuffed by the leftist Meretz Party, whose members feared that supporting his candidacy would divide the so-called peace camp and hand victory to right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon.
Peres' failure to muster just 10 votes out of Israel's 120-member parliament means that the Feb. 6 election will pit Sharon against caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak, whose once-sizable popularity has been depleted by nearly three months of deadly Israeli-Palestinian violence. A midnight deadline for registration passed with no additional candidates presenting themselves.
New polls out today show Sharon, a 72-year-old hawk, defeating Barak by a nearly 20-point margin. His victory would probably doom peace talks that have suddenly gained momentum in Washington.
The same polls show Peres slightly ahead of Sharon, and that was the argument that Peres used in soliciting Meretz's support. Barely concealing his scorn for Barak, the Labor Party standard-bearer, the 77-year-old Peres declared himself the Israeli politician best able to save the country from war and make peace with the Palestinians.
In a three-way race, Peres would probably have been able to force a runoff between himself and Likud Party leader Sharon, pollsters say.
But Meretz leader Yossi Sarid declared in a Thursday night news conference that it was more important for the left to present a united front. "Our fight is against the opposition, Ariel Sharon, not among ourselves," Sarid said.
A disappointed Peres said only that he accepted the results. "That's that," he said.
Sarid made Barak promise Peres, who has been largely marginalized in this government, a more prominent peacemaking role, but Peres declined Barak's offer.
While Meretz's decision not to back Peres was a humiliation for the man known in Israeli politics as the serial loser, his challenge was also a stinging rebuke to Barak and put pressure on the 58-year-old caretaker premier to reach agreement with the Palestinians. Peres had indicated that he would withdraw his candidacy if Barak succeeded in cutting a peace deal.
Peres' declaration earlier this week that he intended to run unleashed a storm of hopeful praise, derisive contempt and bitter debate from the Israeli left. Barak and Peres spent 48 hours trying to rally supporters to their sides through closed-door negotiations and frantic telephone campaigns.
Barak's associates warned that they would "play hardball" and accused Peres of trying to sabotage the peace talks, suggesting that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat would prefer to wait for a Peres election before negotiating in earnest.
Uri Savir, a member of parliament who worked closely with Peres in crafting the original 1993 Oslo peace accords, angrily defended his mentor.
"Peres is a brave man, which is more than I can say for other members of the peace camp," Savir said. "He entered this campaign not because he wanted a job. . . . Peres just wants to save the peace camp and prevent the right wing from winning."
Peres has served as prime minister twice, briefly, but has never won election to the post.
Perhaps his most embarrassing defeat came in August, when, contrary to all predictions, he lost election to the ceremonial post of president of Israel. He was defeated by a little-known right-wing politician, Moshe Katzav.
Analysts say that Israelis will tell pollsters they like Peres but in the end won't vote for him--because he is seen as aloof and as having an overly utopian view of Middle Eastern coexistence and because they are afraid that he will make too many concessions to Israel's Arab neighbors.
"He gives a grand view of what could be, but he's very detached from the Middle East reality," said political scientist Shmuel Sandler of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "It's a pity to see this man who is so talented, so well-spoken, and he can't make contact with the people."