Peres backing old rival Sharon


JERUSALEM -- By almost every measure, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon make for a strange pairing.

Prime Minister Sharon, 77, is a physically imposing retired general and farmer who has fought in every major Israeli war, led the country into a disastrous campaign in Lebanon and earned an international reputation as Israel's most hard-line leader. Peres, 82, is a slight Nobel Peace Prize winner who, despite a reputation as a loser in Israeli politics, has endeared himself to the West as one of Israel's doves.

But whatever their differences, the two aging leaders are betting that together they can usher in a new era of politics by combining their powers in Israel's parliamentary elections in March.

Peres announced last night that he would quit the Labor Party, his political home for nearly half a century, to join Sharon's centrist political movement, a move that Peres said offers the best chance to restart the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

"I don't believe that it is possible to push forward the peace process in the current political constellation," Peres said in a statement released last night in Tel Aviv. "I believe the most qualified person for this is Ariel Sharon.

"He will restart the peace process right after the election. I decided to join him and work with him."

Peres' decision marks the latest upheaval in Israeli politics since Sharon announced last month that he was abandoning the Likud Party, which he had helped found, to start his own political movement.

In announcing his party's platform, Sharon promised to draw up Israel's final borders and seek a peace agreement with the Palestinians, although exactly what concessions he would be willing to make to the Palestinians remain unclear.

Though Sharon and Peres come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, they have worked together before in coalition governments. In January, Peres saved Sharon's prime minister's position by giving him the Labor Party's support when Sharon faced a rebellion from within Likud over his decision to evacuate Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank.

But this is the first time they will enter an election on the same side and not as political foes.

Both Sharon and Peres have something to gain by continuing their partnership.

Sharon's new centrist party, Kadima, is eager to sign up as many big-name Israeli politicians from the left and the right to generate political and financial support.

Internationally, Peres' image as a peacemaker would help Sharon's campaign draw support from Peres' Labor Party loyalists and gain credibility and respect from world leaders.

"Peres can give Sharon an international profile," said Shmuel Sandler, an analyst at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Domestically, Sharon is looking to demonstrate to voters that his party, though new, represents the best of the stability and experience of Israel's old guard, Sandler said.

Under an agreement reached with Sharon, Peres plans to campaign on behalf of the prime minister without officially joining Kadima. If Sharon wins, Peres would receive a top position in the new Cabinet, either dealing with the peace process or developing Israel's sparsely populated Negev desert and northern Galilee regions.

Peres, still smarting from his humiliating defeat last month for Labor Party leader to union leader Amir Peretz, is looking to extend his political career.

Born in Poland, Peres moved in 1934 to the land that would become Israel. He was first elected to parliament in 1954 and has gone on to hold almost every major Cabinet position and served as prime minister in a national unity government in 1984 and again in 1995 after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

He won global acclaim as one of the architects of the peace accord with the Palestinians reached in Oslo, Norway. For his efforts, he shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Despite his extensive government experience, Peres has never won a national election, earning him the reputation as Israel's perpetual loser. Although he has earned the respect and admiration of many Israelis, he is also widely viewed as a political opportunist, often accused of being out of touch with Israelis' needs.

"He has a problem with a lot of Israeli voters. He is so highly regarded in the world that he takes for granted the people at home who vote for him," Sandler said.

Yesterday, Peres said that the decision to leave the party he had joined nearly 50 years ago was difficult.

"This has not been an easy decision for me, but I found myself faced with the contradiction between the party of which I am a member, and the requirements of the political situation," Peres said.

"Without ignoring the deep connection that I have to the party's historical path and its members, I must prefer the more urgent and greater consideration. ... My party activity has come to an end," he said.

Peres' decision to abandon the Labor Party immediately triggered criticism from his former allies.

"Peres' invented ideology is embarrassing and bizarre," Ophir Paz-Pines, a Labor Party member of parliament, told the newspaper Ha'aretz. "Labor is committed more than any other party to the peace process, and Peres' attempt to tie his move to peace is pathetic."

Although there are months to go before the elections, Kadima (meaning "forward" in Hebrew) is leading in opinion polls. A poll published yesterday by the daily Yedioth Ahronoth showed Sharon's new party winning the most seats, with 37 of parliament's 120 seats, followed by Labor with 27. Likud, Sharon's old party that has dominated Israeli politics for nearly three decades, would slip to fourth place with 10 seats.

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