Peres to split with Labour, back Sharon

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM - Veteran statesman Shimon Peres will announce later today he is leaving the Labour Party to back Ariel Sharon in Israel's March election, without formally joining the prime minister's new party, Channel 10 TV said.

There was no immediate confirmation from Peres' aides. Channel 10 said Peres, attending an Israeli-Palestinian soccer match in Barcelona, conveyed his decision to one of its reporters accompanying him on the trip.

The departure of the 82-year-old Peres from his long-time political home would represent a vote of confidence by the Nobel peace laureate in Sharon's oft-repeated pledge to make "painful concessions" for peace with the Palestinians.

Twice prime minister, but never elected to the position, Peres was visibly stunned earlier this month when firebrand trade union chief Amir Peretz ousted him as Labour Party leader in a primary election.

Israeli media reports said Sharon would offer Peres the job of peace envoy if the new Kadima party won the March 28 poll.

Sharon, in a gamble that could reshape Israeli politics for years to come, quit the Likud party last week, saying he could not push for peace with the Palestinians while "wasting time" battling far-right rivals in the movement he co-founded in 1973.

At the same time, Sharon has reaffirmed a pledge to keep major Jewish settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank in any future peace treaty, a prospect Palestinians said would deny them a viable state.

As Labour Party leader and Israel's vice premier, Peres helped Sharon complete a unilateral pullout of troops and Jewish settlers in Gaza last September despite protests in the Likud that such a withdrawal only rewarded Palestinian violence.

Reporting from Barcelona, Channel 10 correspondent Gilad Yadin said Peres had decided to bolt Labour, which ousted him as leader in a Nov. 9 primary election, and "embark on a new political path".

Peres, he said, would announce his support for Sharon and Kadima on his return to Israel but would not become one of its members.

Peres would also not run for parliament in the coming poll, the reporter said. Under Israeli law, that would not bar him from accepting a cabinet post.

Speaking to reporters in Barcelona earlier this week, Peres said he would announce his decision after his return home.

"In my eyes it's not a problem of parties but a problem of peace -- how to create a strong coalition for peace," Peres said.

Peretz, an avowed socialist, took Labour out of the government, condemning what he called harsh economic policies that hurt Israel's poor. But opinion polls show Kadima besting Labour and the Likud in the March 28 ballot.

In a significant political move, Dalia Itzik, a Peres ally and a former communications minister, joined ranks with Kadima.

Itzik, complaining about "a hostile takeover" in Labour, said she felt Sharon had greater chances of winning the general election.

In his bid to appeal to a broad cross-section of Israelis, Sharon has courted support from an odd alliance of people, from Israeli Arab leaders to a former security chief who expanded a policy of assassinating Palestinian militant leaders.

Sharon, who remains prime minister until the election, convened some 70 Israeli mayors from various political parties at his Jerusalem residence, seeking their backing for Kadima. Fourteen Likud legislators have already defected.

- REUTERS

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