Former Labor chairman Shimon Peres isn't expected to leave Labor for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima party until he returns from Barcelona on Wednesday evening, but that didn't stop senior Labor officials from saying Monday that they were glad he is gone.
Dozens of young Labor activists held a demonstration outside Peres's home in Ramat Aviv calling upon him not to leave the party. The activists hoisted signs saying "Peres don't betray us." But top Labor officials said that Peres's departure could help the party.
"Peres for 20 years has been a burden that has harmed Labor," former MK Weizmann Shiri said. "No one seriously wants him to stay. I would be glad if he has finally left. He has undermined every Labor leader in the last decade. I give credit to Amir Peretz for not letting him undermine him."
A current Labor MK was even more blunt, saying "Good riddance. Labor would never have been able to recover as long as the shadow of Shimon Peres hovered over the party."
Several Labor officials have been calling upon Peres to retire for years. Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel have compared Peres to an evergreen tree that doesn't let any new flowers sprout underneath.
"I called upon him to leave two years ago but I am sorry to see one of the top leaders I have seen go," Cabel said. "I think he shouldn't have left especially in such a dishonorable way that hurts his image. But I know Labor will recover. It's painful but it could lead to good things for Labor."
Peretz's office said that international leaders had been pressuring Peres to remain with Labor. They said that leaders of international labor and socialist parties had been calling Labor to ask for an explanation as to why Peres would leave when Labor is doing well in the polls. But a Peres associate said that world leaders want Peres to join Kadima.
Former minister Dalia Itzik, who is close to Peres, said before a meeting with Peretz on Monday that "it looks like [Peres] will leave." Peretz told the Labor faction on Monday that he still hopes Peretz decides to stay. He compared the recent shift of politicians' political affiliations to the trend of athletes leaving their teams in free agency.
"Stay at home, don't let them drag you away, join us for the revolution," Peretz said in a message to Peres that he delivered in Monday's Labor faction meeting. "We are going through a period where the joining and switching between political parties has reached a crazed state, with no reason or sense." Peretz met on Monday with his nemesis, former prime minister Ehud Barak, and asked him to run for Knesset with Labor but a source close to Peretz said privately that Barak was "unelectable." Barak is undecided about whether to run.
Peres's younger brother, Gershon "Gigi" Peres, caused an uproar on Monday when he accused Peretz and his associates in an Army Radio interview on Monday of taking over the party like "General Franco took over Spain" in the Spanish Civil War.
According to the younger Peres, "The Falangists who came from southern Spain, came to Madrid as a fifth column and destroyed the republic. This game is totally transparent; One Nation people from North Africa took over and stabbed them in the back." In response to the attack, Shimon Peres's office issued a statement rejecting Gigi Peres's remarks. "These comments were said without the knowledge of Shimon Peres. The comparison is unnecessary and inappropriate," it read. Peres later told reporters in Spain that Gigi's statements were "inappropriate."
Gigi apologized for his remarks later in the day in an interview with Channel 2. Shimon and Gigi Peres are not close and rarely speak. Gigi has made several controversial statements in the past and Shimon Peres has distanced himself from all of them.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah endorsed Peretz on Sunday, saying that he may help unite the peace camp in Israel and advance diplomatic talks with the Palestinians, the official Saudi Press Agency reported on Monday.
"I want to give a chance to the peace process," Abdullah said. "The emergence of Peretz as the leader of the Israeli Labor Party could cause a breakthrough."