By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
JERUSALEM, Nov. 29 -- Speculation mounted Tuesday that Shimon Peres, the longtime pillar of Israel's Labor Party, plans to break ranks and join Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new centrist movement.
The departure of Peres, 82, from Labor, which Sharon allies speculated could come Wednesday, would continue a broad realignment of Israel's political parties prompted by Sharon's decision to withdraw Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip earlier this year.
Peres, who lost the Labor leadership vote earlier this month, was traveling in Spain on Tuesday and did not comment specifically about his plans. Sharon left the Likud Party last week to form the new movement, known as Kadima.
Peres's ally, Dalia Itzik, a member of Labor's 21-person parliamentary bloc, announced that she would join Sharon. She is the second Labor member of parliament to do so after Haim Ramon, who announced his decision last week.
"It looks like a package deal," Eitan Cabel, the Labor Party's secretary general, told Israel's Army Radio. "We spoke about their remaining and not defecting to another party. But apparently things were already sealed, and the talks with us were nothing but a smoke screen."
Sharon has moved quickly to establish Kadima, which means Forward, as the party most capable of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The newly drafted party platform explicitly calls for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a goal of the U.S.-backed plan known as the "road map," which Sharon has said he would follow in seeking to revive a dormant peace process. The platform also calls for Israel to keep its major West Bank settlement blocs and East Jerusalem in any final peace agreement.
"The real change is not in the Labor Party," Peres told reporters in Barcelona, where he attended a friendly soccer match between the city's professional team and a mixed Israeli-Palestinian squad. "The real change is in the Likud Party. Mr. Sharon took a different direction for a Palestinian state. He wants to continue the peace process."
Peres advisers said he had not yet made up his mind, but confirmed he was likely to announce his support for Sharon as the next prime minister after returning to Israel. They said it was unclear whether Peres had decided to formally join the party.
Sharon advisers said Peres, who has held a variety of cabinet posts and twice served as prime minister, had not informed Sharon of his decision by late Tuesday evening. One Sharon adviser instrumental in establishing Kadima said the two men had engaged in "serious discussions" in recent days about Peres joining the party.
"The smell is good, but we haven't seen any food on the table," the adviser said on condition of anonymity. "We are very hopeful that this will help us seize the moment that has opened up and push the peace process forward."
Israel's elections are scheduled for March 28. Thirteen of Likud's 40 parliamentary members defected with Sharon, and if Peres leaves Labor, it would mark an important symbolic step for the new party.
Two other members of parliament from minor parties have also joined Kadima. Any parliamentary recruit is important because television advertising time for campaigns in Israel is tied to the number of positions a party holds in the Knesset, the 120-seat parliament. In addition, a founding member of the secular-centrist Shinui Party, Uriel Reichman, announced Tuesday that he would join Kadima following assurances that he would head the Education Ministry if Sharon wins reelection.