Peretz defeats Peres to become new Labor leader

Following a dramatic vote, Histadrut labor federation Chairman Amir Peretz was Thursday morning named the new chairman of the Labor Party, defeating the incumbent and favorite, Vice Premier Shimon Peres. The pre-dawn announcement followed a tightly-run race between the two opponents, which initially showed a slight lead for Peres. Peretz, a fiery union leader, wants to steer the party back to its socialist roots, pull out of the coalition and force early elections. His message has resonated with Israelis disenfranchised by government cuts in social spending and the country’s growing gap between rich and poor. Shortly after 6 A.M., amid cheering from Peretz’s supporters, Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel announced that Peretz had won with 42.35 percent of the votes, while Peres was backed by 39.96 percent of voters. In third place was Benjamin Ben Eliezer, with 16.82 percent of the vote. Cabel was quick to rebuff claims of fraud and irregularities in the elections, which caused Peres to issue a last minute call for a halt in the count. Following his victory, Peretz is expected to announce Labor will quit Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government, propelling the country into political disarray and advancing the likelihood of early general elections. „Amir will discuss with the prime minister an agreed date for an election,” said Yuli Tamir, a Labor legislator and Peretz supporter. The release of the vote’s final results was stalled by several hours as the Labor election committee, led by Cabel, headed early Thursday morning to the vote counting center in Petah Tikva after several claims of fraud in polling stations. In a pre-dawn press conference, Peres called on Labor’s legal institutions to look into claims of severe irregularities in polling stations in Sderot and Be’er Sheva, two Peretz strongholds. Some of the vote results „raised exceptional doubts,” Peres said. „It is unreasonable that in communities where I had a majority I have now dropped to seven votes.” „I expected a better evening,” Peres said. Sitting alongside Peres, former prime minister Ehud Barak said the outcome of the primaries did not reflect the will of the party’s voters. But several hours later, the election committee announced it had rejected Peres’ claims of fraud and okayed the completing of the counting of the votes in the remaining 13 polling stations from a total of 318. Peretz did not immediately respond to the accusations, but his supporters were already claiming victory. The Peretz camp erupted into celebrations when the Histadrut chief took the lead in the vote count early Thursday, and Israel Radio said he was headed to party headquarters to make an announcement. The uncounted districts were believed to favor Peretz, and Israeli radio stations said his victory was imminent. Implications for government The outcome of the vote will have wide-ranging implications for the future of Sharon’s shaky governing coalition, in which Labor is the junior member. Peres had said that he would keep Labor in the government until the next elections scheduled in November 2006. The 82-year-old politician led Labor into the government this year to shore up support for Sharon’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The pullout divided Sharon’s Likud Party, and without Labor support, the plan could not have been carried out.