JERUSALEM — The new head of Israel's Labor Party declared yesterday that he intends to pull out of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's governing coalition, setting the stage for a period of political disarray that could bog down Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts for months.
"We will inform the prime minister that we wish to separate," Amir Peretz, best known for his leadership of Israel's biggest trade federation, said hours after his come-from-behind victory over veteran statesman Shimon Peres in the contest for the party leadership.
If the 54-year-old Peretz follows through on his pledge to abandon Sharon's coalition, it will almost certainly trigger early general elections. Balloting had not been scheduled to take place until November 2006.
The prime minister would be hard-pressed to form a new coalition that could withstand constant parliamentary challenges from right-wing rivals, including those within his own Likud Party, who are simmering with anger over the summer's Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
But Peretz could encounter strong opposition from within the ranks of his own party, particularly from senior members who hold Cabinet posts in the Sharon government. They might seek to prevent him from breaking with the coalition, a move that would cost them their jobs.
Peretz is to meet Sunday with Sharon. Analysts predicted that the prime minister would either try to woo Labor into a renewed alliance or accept Labor's departure and open negotiations on a new election date.
Upheaval is a near-constant in Israeli politics, but the 82-year-old Peres' abrupt fall from power and the overnight ascent of a relative political neophyte left many observers stunned. Israeli pollster Hanan Kristal described Peretz's unexpected victory as "an eight or nine on the political Richter scale."
The primary results not only rattled the political establishment but sent tremors through Israel's economic sector. The Tel Aviv stock exchange and the Israeli currency, the shekel, both fell sharply yesterday on news of Peretz's win, though both later stabilized.
That nervousness stemmed partly from Peretz's fiery calls for an end to the free-market policies championed over the past two years by Sharon's government, particularly by former Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Peretz argued that the pains of economic reforms had fallen too heavily on some of the most vulnerable members of society: pensioners, single parents and the poor.
Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is widely respected internationally but derided by domestic critics for an inability to connect with voters. Although he has served twice as prime minister, he has never won an election to the post.
"What is this curse that hovers over him, leading to loss after loss, humiliation after humiliation?" Yossi Verter, a political columnist, wrote in yesterday's online editions of the Haaretz newspaper.
Analysts said Peres was hurt in the leadership race by a low turnout and by the fact that, though he is respected within party ranks, support for him tends not to be passionate. Peretz, on the other hand, used his union background to mobilize committed backers and get them to the polls.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.