MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Israel is headed for new parliamentary elections. Today Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to vote, possibly in February or March. Sharon's hand was forced after Amir Peretz took over as leader of the Labor Party. Peretz had vowed to take Labor out of the governing coalition with Sharon's Likud Party. As NPR's Linda Gradstein reports, Peretz is a fiery trade union leader with distinctly dovish views about Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.
LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:
More than 20 years ago, Amir Peretz decided he wanted to be mayor of a little town in southern Israel just a few miles from Israel's border with Gaza where he had grown up. Everyone told him he didn't have a chance. Siderot had long been a bastion of the right-wing Likud Party. But when the votes were counted, Amir Peretz at age 30 had won the election.
Peretz scored another improbable victory last week in elections for the leadership of Israel's Labor Party. Polls had predicted an easy triumph for elder statesman Shimon Peres. But when the votes were counted, Amir Peretz had won the primary by 24,000 votes. Now Peretz hopes to pull off a surprise win in Israel's national elections early next year. Stuart Schoffman, a columnist for The Jerusalem Report magazine and a Labor Party supporter, says he just might be able to do it.
Mr. STUART SCHOFFMAN (The Jerusalem Report): This guy is a bundle of macho energy and ambition. Nothing could stand in his way in reaching the throne of the Labor Party, and with that kind of drive and with the obvious political savvy that he has and the street smarts that he has, yes, he very well could go all the way.
GRADSTEIN: But others, like Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University, think Peretz lacks the experience to become an effective prime minister.
Mr. GERALD STEINBERG (Bar-Ilan University): The ability of someone who does not seem to think carefully, slowly and understand the complexities of the world--that person is not really a very strong candidate to be the leader of Israel in these conditions.
GRADSTEIN: Polls show that if the national elections were held tomorrow, the Peretz-led Labor Party would win 27 seats, up from 22 in the current parliament. That's still less than Likud would win under Sharon. But Peretz says he's just getting started.
The 53-year-old Peretz was born in Morocco and moved to Israel with his family at age four. If elected, he would be the first Israeli prime minister with Middle Eastern rather than European roots. That's expected to bring him votes from other Jews of Middle Eastern origin who say they have been discriminated against since Israel was founded.
Peretz was first elected to parliament in 1988, and 10 years ago became the head of the Histadrut, Israel's powerful labor union federation. With his graying handlebar mustache and fiery oratory, he has become a spokesman for Israel's poor. As trade union leader, he repeatedly brought the Israeli economy to a halt with widespread strikes. He's also a longtime member of the dovish group Peace Now. Last week at a rally commemorating the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peretz called on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank.
Mr. AMIR PERETZ: (Through Translator) Continuing the occupation is a recipe for drowning in the mud of Israel's lost values and ethics. We need an ethical road map with the value of man at its center. An ethical road map means ending the occupation and signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
GRADSTEIN: Peretz says the growing violence in Israeli society and the economic stagnation are due in large part to the continuing occupation of the Palestinians. For decades, social issues in Israel have been left largely on the back burner because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Amir Peretz says the two issues are connected, and if given a chance he can solve both of them. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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