Olmert leads Israel’s PM race

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz backed down from his attempt to set up a “social emergency government” with himself at the head, after he failed to win the backing of other parties and was slated by his colleagues for trying to form alliances with right-wing parties.

Labor won just 19 of the 120 seats up for grabs in last week’s ballot, 10 behind acting prime minister Ehud Olmert’s centrist Kadima.

Under Israeli law the president is not obliged automatically to call on the leader of the largest party to form a government, but instead appoints the party leader who has the best chance of forming a coalition, based on the recommendations of party leaders.

Support for Mr Peretz as premier heading a coalition focusing on socio-economic issues came from hawkish and nationalist parties opposed to Mr Olmert plan for a partial withdrawal from the West Bank.

The right-wing National Union-National Religious Party alliance had earlier said it would endorse Mr Peretz as prime minister in the belief that he may concentrate his energies on social matters.

But after meeting President Moshe Katsav, the faction’s leader stopped short of formally endorsing Mr Peretz.

The Pensioners party, which surprisingly won seven seats, meanwhile gave its support to Mr Olmert even though its MPs have strong Labor roots.

“We believe that Olmert can assemble the next government and march forward. We want to be part of the coalition,” party leader Rafi Eitan told reporters after he met Katsav.

“There are two large parties — Kadima and Labor. Their platform is more similar than dissimilar. I suggest these two parties sit down, straighten out their differences and form the next government together,” he said.

Yossi Beilin, leader of the small left-wing Meretz party, which spent
Monday in talks with Mr Olmert before meeting President Katsav later, said he would not join a Peretz-led coalition if it was crammed with right-wingers.

Despite matching Labor’s worst ever electoral perfomance in 2003, it became clear on Sunday that Mr Peretz was seriously considering a bid to make himself premier in alliance with parties whom he had previously stated he would not do business with.

The prospect has appalled some within Labor which is broadly in favour of Mr Olmert’s plan to fix Israel’s borders over the next four years.

Apparently stung by the criticism from within his party, anonymous aides quoted by the Ha’aretz daily’s website said Mr Peretz had no intention of forming a coalition with right-wing parties although he could do so “in 10 minutes”.

“I will not form a government that is unnatural that will not promote a world view that espouses both welfare reforms and peace negotiations,” the Ha’aretz quoted him as saying.


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