Peres Loses Again, Amir Peretz New Labor Party Leader

Amir Peretz, head of the Histadrut Labor Union who left Labor to found the small One Nation party before returning to Labor, eked out a surprise victory over Shimon Peres, and is Labor's new leader.

Hillel Fendel , | updated: 10:50 PM

The race for Labor Party Chairman was too close to call for most of the night, but was finally decided early this morning by a small margin of 2.4%. The final results:
Amir Peretz - 42.35%
Shimon Peres - 39.96%
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer - 16.8%

Peretz pulled off a surprise victory after polls throughout the campaign showed him trailing Peres by a significant margin. It had been widely believed - apparently correctly - that Peretz's well-oiled Histadrut machine would help him make up some of that margin by bringing out voters who might otherwise not have shown up.

Peres said this early morning that he would ask the party to investigate charges of vote-tampering in the Peretz camp. "There are real suspicions of forgeries, pressures, and threats," he said. In an unprecedented act of omission, Peres did not call Peretz to congratulate him on his victory.

Peretz, in his victory speech, said that he would act immediately to remove Labor from the unity government with the Likud - one of the main issues on which he differed with Peres. Peretz added later, however, that he would consult with the party's Secretary-General (MK Eitan Cabel) and other party leaders to "decide on the best way in which to inform the Likud that we wish to separate."

When the polls closed last night at 8:30 PM, a major media drama began when the two leading radio stations produced diametrically-opposed projections. The Voice of Israel, commissioning Prof. Yitzchak Katz of Maagar Mohot (Brain Base), reported that Peretz would beat the incumbent Peres by a 46%-41% margin. Army Radio, on the other hand, utilizing the services of the Smith Institute, reported a large Peres victory - 52%-38% - over Peretz.

Peretz's victory is widely seen as the end of the current Knesset and the opening whistle of the national election campaign. Likud MK Gideon Saar said that Labor had chosen an "extreme left-winger on economic and diplomatic issues, who has absolutely no experience in running a country."

Shinui Party leader Tommy Lapid said that Peretz's victory put Labor on the extreme-left of Israel's political scene.

MK Effie Eitam (National Union) called upon Peretz to begin consultations with the opposition parties to determine an agreed-upon date for early elections. "The shake-up in Labor and the split in the Likud leave no doubt that the current government does not represent its voters or the will of the nation," Eitam said. "The left and right must work together to advance the elections."

The next national election is scheduled for a year from now, and Ariel Sharon has promised many times that the elections will not be moved up. Sources close to Sharon have been hinting of late that the Prime Minister is planning to start a new party in time for the elections.

Much of the Labor Party leadership did not support Peretz in the campaign. He called upon them this morning to "give me some leeway," and said that he would meet with them and try to convince them to quit the government.

Approximately 62% of Labor's 100,474 eligible voters cast their ballots in the Labor primaries. Worried that a low turnout would mean a Peretz victory, Peres requested that the polls be kept open for two extra hours - but received only a half-hour extension. He spent the last hours of the vote calling Labor Party members personally and asking them to go out and vote.

It is not yet known whether Peres, 82, who has become accustomed to losing elections, will retire from politics, or whether he will continue with "business as usual." His daughter said this morning that in her opinion, her father will not quit. "He is like the wind; he can't be stopped or closed up," she said.