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"One of the central issues to be discussed during my meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon next week will be an attempt to reach an understanding regarding an agreed-upon date for early elections. If that fails, we will try and secure a Knesset majority," newly elected Labor Chairman Amir Peretz said on Thursday, hours after he was declared both a winner in the party's primaries and its prime ministerial candidate.
Sharon phoned Peretz on Thursday morning and congratulated him on his victory. In a dramatic change for the Labor party, Peretz, 54, the Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman, defeated Vice Premier Shimon Peres.
Peretz, on the other hand, did not receive a congratulatory phone call from Peres, who claimed the elections were marred by fraud. The new Labor boss said all Labor ministers and MKs congratulated him except one, obviously referring to Peres.
Labor Ministers Haim Ramon, Matan Vilan'i, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Ophir Paz-Pines and Yitzhak Herzog all announced that they would unite behind Peretz.
In the first appearance since his defeat, Peres looked quite exhausted after a sleepless night, as he spoke at the Prime Minister's Conference for Export and International Cooperation on Thursday.
He appeared reluctant to address his loss. "You probably want me to talk about last night, but don't forget that you never ask a [gentleman] what he did at night," he quipped, adding, "I have nothing to be ashamed of."
Peres avoided referring to the new Labor chief directly, speaking generally about the Labor party instead, and the "impatient politicians" who feel the need to rush to general elections ahead of their scheduled date in October 2006. Still, he assessed that the elections will be moved to the early months of next year.
He criticized his party's trend to pose a fighting opposition to the reigning government. "If we have to come together, it is not to build an opposition, but to build a constructive state for the continuation of the peace policies and economic development of Israel," he concluded.
Meanwhile, the Likud reacted rapidly to the likelihood that the general elections would be pushed forward, as Chairman of the Likud's secretariat, Minister Yisrael Katz, announced on Thursday morning that he would convene the secretariat next week to discuss the party's readiness for early elections.
Final official results of the primaries showed that Peretz received 42.35% of the vote, while Peres trailed with 39.96% of the vote, representing, 27,098 and 26,572 ballots, respectively. The third candidate, National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, recieved 15.82% of the vote.
In his victory speech, Peretz said he would quit the government coalition. "We will get together, all the senior party leadership and its MKs, and decide on the way in which we would notify the prime minister that we wish to quit. Our aim is to turn the Labor party into an alternative that will conquer the next general elections," he told his exuberant supporters in Tel Aviv.
Peretz urged unity in his party, and appealed to his defeated rival Peres to remain in the party. "Shimon, do not leave us alone," Peretz said. "I would like to turn to my mentor, one of the dearest people of this country, our friend, a man we love with all our heart. I know this is a difficult moment but this could still turn out to be the most important moment for the State of Israel. Shimon, contrary to others that turned to you in the past, I really want you by my side."
On the eve of the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Labor leader and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peretz said, "Today, we will visit his grave and tell him: We will not allow your path to be destroyed, we will not let the peace be destroyed. Ten years since the murder is the time to remind everyone that Yitzhak's last testament will be continued."
Peretz gave a preview of his plans for economic policy: "I will not allow any person to twist my economic ideology. I am in favor of a free market and a prosperous economy. But not, under any circumstances, a slave market. Competition yes, but competition like in the jungle that trounces people, no."
The Labor Party central election committee at 5 a.m. Thursday rejected the petition of then-incumbent Labor chairman Peres, who claimed voter fraud and irregularities in the southern towns of Mitzpeh Ramon and Sderot, leaving Peretz with apparent victory of the party's primaries.
Peres defeated Peretz in relatively wealthy communities where the Labor Party is dominant. Peretz emerged victorious in poorer neighborhoods and development towns and places where the Likud has a traditionally large following.
Peretz won in Beersheba, Afula, Holon, Lod, Hadera, Nazareth Elite, Modiin, Netanya, Hod Hasharon, and Rehovot. Peres won Jerusalem by 100 votes, Rishon Lezion by two votes, Haifa, Kfar Saba Raanana, Givat Shmuel, and Ramat Hasharon.
While the ballots were being tallied, and polls gave Peretz the lead, Peres gave an interview in which he declared that he would not accept the election result.
According to Peres, many complaints were accumulated regarding, "irregularities and also results of certain sectors, that are unreasonable and disproportionate in a significant way."
Peres said he plans on turning to the party's legal institutions in order "to examine the complaints."
Asked if these allegations of election fraud tainted the Labor Party's respect, Peres said, "The party is not measured by allegations of faking votes but rather the fight against faking votes."
"In every election there is some degree of fraud, however, democracy is measured by battling that fraud," he continued.
Peretz's spokesman said that no matter what the final results will be, Peretz already succeeded in reviving the Labor Party and putting socio-economic issues at the top of the national agenda.
His opponents in Labor said that a Peretz victory would likely be appealed to both internal party courts and national courts. Labor's bylaws require a party primary 14 months after Labor loses a general election and Peretz would undoubtedly be challenged.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak, who supported Peres in the race but predicted that he would lose, said that a Peretz victory would be tainted by a membership drive in which thousands of people would be forced to join Labor by Peretz's men.
"It's not as if the real members of Labor voted in a fair election," Barak told Army Radio. "Peretz's campaign was technologically advanced. And his power politics have allowed him to take over the Labor Party. Peres is to blame because he brought him into the party. He was the one who opened the floodgates."
Turnout in the race was some 64%, which was the minimum amount that Peres campaign said was necessary to win. In the Peres campaign, there were worries all day about low voter turnout. Peres even issued a press release calling on Labor members to vote.
Peretz said throughout the campaign that he could bring many Likud members to Labor. Peres's campaign warned that Peretz would prevent Labor from attracting support from Shinui voters.
"This is an earthquake for Labor," Shinui leader Yosef Lapid said. "Peretz will bring Labor back to the extreme left and scare the mainstream members of Labor to Shinui."