News Analysis: As Labor members bicker, Peres eyes uncertain path

JERUSALEM — Shimon Peres never looked more uncomfortable than when he and Benjamin Netanyahu stood before reporters this week at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem.

The pair, having just emerged from their first meeting since last week's election, discussed "matters of national security," anticipating the upcoming changeover, Netanyahu said.

As he did during a Sunday-night victory speech to the Likud Party faithful, the prime minister-elect again emphatically praised Peres' contribution to the state and its security. The 46-year-old Netanyahu said he would always want to sit with Peres and listen to his "fascinating and gripping" conversation.

Netanyahu said Tuesday's meeting should be "an example for the entire world, not just Israelis, that in a democracy like ours, governments can change hands smoothly."

Peres' face, meanwhile, grew longer and longer. His eyes stared straight ahead at an indeterminate point above the reporters' heads. The image reflected the man himself: a man whose future after 50 years of serving the state seems uncertain. It also mirrored doubts now haunting the Labor Party that Peres led and that now stands defeated.

"My heart goes out to him," Minister of Housing Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said, watching the footage at the studios of Israel Television's Channel 2.

Likud member Tzachi Hanegbi, a likely ministerial appointment in the new Cabinet, also seemed embarrassed by the veteran statesman's obvious discomfort. He sought to soften the moment for television viewers by praising Peres' long service record.

What Peres will do now is a big question mark.

Sources close to the outgoing prime minister dismissed speculation abroad that he might be a candidate for secretary-general of the United Nations or of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The sources said Peres might take a university post, adding that possibly a special position would be created for him at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He will also spend time on his writing, they said.

The implication is that he will stand down as Labor Party chairman in the not-too-distant future. Labor's constitution calls for a leadership election within 14 months of an electoral defeat. But Peres may not wish to stay on that long.

For now, his presence at the helm is having a much-needed stabilizing effect, as the party leadership goes through a wrenching process of recrimination and internal struggle in the wake of Peres' defeat.

Amid all the wrangling, talk of creating a national unity government continued. As Netanyahu began negotiating with the smaller, mostly religious parties that are expected to join his government, former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said a unity government was the best way to heal deep divisions among Israelis.

Before the elections, Netanyahu floated the idea of forming a unity government with Labor, but he has not raised the issue again since his victory. While Peres reportedly opposes the idea, he did not rule it out in meetings with Labor Party ministers this week, saying the party should wait for an offer from Likud.

Whether such an offer would be forthcoming is now taking second place to the internecine strife among Labor leaders.

Since the results became known last week, Peres has urged his two senior lieutenants, Foreign Minister Ehud Barak and Interior Minister Haim Ramon, to cease their high-profile feuding over who was to blame for the prime minister's defeat. At a party leadership session Monday night, the two men traded accusations, which were instantly leaked to the media.

Ramon claimed that Barak, who served as Peres' personal campaign manager, "did precious little except complain and hurl accusations at others."

Barak's camp contended that it believed for several weeks that Peres' standing was slipping but that Ramon, who headed advertising and publicity campaigns for Peres, had refused to take account of this information and did not let it filter through to Peres himself.

As the allegations fly, a picture of disharmony and backbiting in Labor's election headquarters is taking on ever sharper colors.

This internal conflict may subside once Labor settles down to life in opposition after the new Knesset begins its term June 17. But it is bound to well up again once the battle for party leadership begins.

Barak is a certain candidate for the position, and Ramon is likely to run as well — unless after the current conflict he decides to take a break from politics.

Another candidate expected to announce in the coming days his quest for the leadership is Minister of Health Ephraim Sneh.

Yossi Beilin, minister without portfolio and close Peres protegé, says he will run for chairman of the Labor Knesset faction, an important post for a party in opposition. But he is not explicitly ruling out a bid for party chairmanship.

One man who has already declared his candidacy for the prime ministerial election in the year 2000 is Yossi Sarid, leader of the left-wing Meretz Party.

With his party's win of nine seats in the incoming Knesset — polls two months ago were predicting five — Sarid can boast a relatively successful election, even though Meretz dropped from its 12 seats in the outgoing Knesset.

But Sarid must first contend with widespread accusations both within Labor and among independent analysts that Meretz's radically anti-Orthodox campaigning may well have deterred a significant number of voters from supporting Peres.