Peres farewell ends an era in Israeli politics

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Shimon Peres has blown the whistle to start the race for his own succession - as leader of the Israeli Labour Party and, perhaps, as Prime Minister. Labour, like the Likud before it, is changing generations.

With a deceptively casual air, the 73-year-old veteran of nearly half a century in Israeli politics told a local television interviewer he would not be standing for prime minister in the next elections in four years. Nor would he run for party leader in a poll due by July 1997.

It was inevitable that Mr Peres would be replaced before the 2000 elections. Despite a 15-point lead at the beginning of the campaign, he lost in May to Benjamin Netanyahu - the Likud leader 26 years his junior. It was Mr Peres's fifth failure as Labour's standard-bearer, and no mitigating circumstances, even the Hamas suicide bombings, could persuade the party to give him another chance.

The party and its leader knew that he had to go. But he was in no hurry. He wanted, he said, to hand over the shop in good order. Less openly, Mr Peres hoped that Mr Netanyahu, would make such a mess that his coalition would disintegrate and the Prime Minister would beg Labour to join a national unity government. Mr Peres's announcement is a tacit acknowledgement that this is not going to happen.

Mr Netanyahu has undergone a crash course in the realities of Israeli democracy. But his government is not about to collapse. He insisted yesterday the peace process with the Palestinians was starting to move, with priority being given to redeployment from Hebron, the last West Bank city still under occupation. "There is serious engagement that has begun on the outstanding issues, including Hebron," he told European correspondents on the eve of a visit to Britain, France and Germany. The voters will judge Mr Netanyahu by results, but they are giving him time.

No one was surprised by Mr Peres's decision, but its timing on Wednesday night caught the politicians off-guard. One aspiring successor, Uzi Baram, heard the news on holiday in Miami, Florida. Neither of his main rivals, Ehud Barak and Haim Ramon, was watching the programme. The contest is between these two. The 59-year-old Mr Baram is past his sell-by date.

At 54, Mr Barak is the front- runner. His record as a former chief of staff and Israel's most-decorated combat soldier reassures a nervous public which demands peace with security. But, despite a brief stint as Foreign Minister, he has to convince the party rank and file that he has mastered politics since he hung up his uniform in early 1995.

Mr Ramon, eight years his junior, proved himself a vote-winner two years ago when he defeated the established Labour candidate for leadership of the Histadrut trade union federation. But, as campaign director, the former Interior Minister is now being blamed for Labour's election debacle.

Mr Peres will remain at the helm until next summer. He pledged to go on fighting for the peace process, which he and the assassinated Labour Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, launched four year ago. "My struggle," he said, "is not over a job, but over an issue. I will be as active as a devil. I would struggle for peace even as a street cleaner."

But he will be struggling from the outside. Others will decide. Mr Peres will command an audience for his ideas, but he will no longer make history.

n Marjayoun, Lebanon - Two Israeli soldiers were killed and two wounded in a guerrilla ambush against their patrol in south Lebanon yesterday, Reuter reports. Earlier the South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia sources said four Israeli soldiers were wounded when Muslim guerrillas attacked their patrol on the edge of Israel's south Lebanon occupation zone.