Shimon Peres, Israel's former prime minister, hinted strongly on Tuesday that he would resign from the Labor party to remain in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government. He said he would make a decision in the next few days.
An aide to Sharon and senior Labor politicians said yesterday they believed Peres, 82, had already decided to quit the party after it dumped him as leader and pulled out of the coalition government, forcing a general election in March.
"He will leave the Labor party ... and will join the Sharon government," an adviser to Sharon, Lior Horev, told the Associated Press.
But Labor officials said that their former leader, who is renowned for his scheming, may be maneuvering.
Peres said the issue was which party offered the best prospects for peace.
"The problem is not parties, the problem is how really to build a structure for peace," he said. "Mr Sharon took a different direction for a Palestinian state. He wants to continue the peace process."
Senior Labor figures warned Peres that the prime minister's plan to create a Palestinian state was a "hoax" which would perpetuate the conflict. It is not certain that, even if Peres leaves Labor, he will join Sharon's new party, Kadima, which polls show is likely to emerge as the biggest party in the next parliament, followed by Labor, but without an outright majority. Sharon's former party, Likud, is third.
Peres could continue as a Cabinet minister not as a member of parliament. Horev said if Peres remained in the Cabinet it would be as minister for development in the Negev desert and Galilee regions of Israel.
It is not clear that Sharon wants to keep Peres on, although he would be delighted to see him out of Labor. Israel radio reported the prime minister is considering appointing Peres as "special ambassador for peace affairs" with responsibility for talks with Arab governments. That may tempt Peres, who is more respected abroad than at home.
Labor's secretary-general, Eitan Cabel, told army radio that the defection of a Peres ally, Dalia Itzik, to Kadima yesterday suggested that Peres was about to jump ship.
"It looks like a package deal," he said.
Another senior Labor politician, Ephraim Sneh, warned Peres against joining Kadima, branding Sharon's peace plan a "hoax" that will prolong the conflict.
"Sharon is moving with cleverness, with cunning, to set out a map in the West Bank that is a recipe for the continuation of the conflict," he said.
Although Peres said on several occasions that he took Labor into Sharon's government to bring Israel back to negotiations with the Palestinians, he failed to do so.
The rise in Labor's popularity since Amir Peretz became leader is seen as further evidence that Peres was more a liability than a strength. Some Israeli newspapers have urged Peres to retire gracefully, saying that the voters have grown weary of him.