Ex-finance Minister Shochat Likely to Quit Politics Next Week

Key Barak ally expected to go into business; Peres rejects Labor calls to quit gov't, says to stay until 2006.

MK Avraham Shochat, a former Finance Minister and key ally to former prime minister Ehud Barak, will convene a press conference Sunday where he is expected to announce his withdrawal from political life.

Army Radio reported that in recent months Shochat has been in contact with people in the business community about possible positions for him following a departure from politics.

Political sources reported in July that Shochat was considering this move. Shochat also weighed leaving the Knesset four years ago, but was convinced by associates to remain. On the eve of the 2003 elections he successfully competed for a place on the Labor list. Nevertheless, he failed to be chosen as a minister in the subsequent national unity government.

Shochat was elected to the Knesset in 1988. In 1992 he was appointed finance minister in former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's government, and served in this position until Labor's loss of power in 1996.

In 1999 Shochat was appointed finance minister again in the Barak government and held the position for two years. When Barak announced his return to politics, Shochat was one of the first MKs to support him.

There has been a long rivalry between Shochat and Histadrut labor federation Chairman MK Amir Peretz, who is currently running for the leadership of Labor. At a press conference that Barak held Wednesday, Shochat said Peretz had sent the Histadrut 30 years back in time and had turned it into a political party.

If Shochat actually does leave the Knesset, he will be replaced by former MK Saleh Tarif, Labor's representative in the Druze community.

Peres rejects Labor calls to quit gov't, says party to stay until 2006Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres rejected calls from within his party for Labor to quit the government now that the disengagement has ended, arguing instead that the party should remain until the next scheduled elections, in October 2006, as long as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accepts four conditions.

"If we quit in November-December, everything will come to a halt," Peres said in an interview with Haaretz on Monday. "The campaign will take half a year, two more months will be spent forming a government, and 2006 will go down the drain. In the meantime, poverty will thrive and Hamas will be active. The matter of Gaza will not be completed... As a decent person, I ask myself: If it is possible to begin to emerge from poverty in November, should we postpone this for a year? What, am I crazy?"

The conditions that Peres plans to present to Sharon are: resolving the outstanding issues connected with the Gaza pullout, primarily the dispute over border crossings and economic cooperation, by the end of 2005; beginning diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on the basis of the road map peace plan; devoting funds to a war on poverty; and continuing to develop the Negev and Galilee.

Regarding the illegal settlement outposts, Peres said that he intended to demand that Sharon dismantle them but would not issue an ultimatum on this issue.

Many Labor members are unenthusiastic about Peres' conditions, and senior party officials charged Thursday that even on the eve of the elections, Peres will not quit the government. "Labor can turn into a division of the Likud; the main thing is that he continues to be a minister," said one.

Nevertheless, Peres is not alone in his views. Almost all the Labor Party ministers would like to remain in the government until the elections, despite the electoral risk to the party of continued cooperation with Likud.

Housing and Construction Minister Isaac Herzog told Israel Radio he favors remaining in the government, saying that Labor must exhaust all possibilities of cooperation with the Likud.

Herzog said the disengagement plan would not have implemented were it not for Labor's determination, adding that the country does not want to go to elections at this stage, Israel Radio reported.