updated 11/30/2005 1:29:43 PM ET 2005-11-30T18:29:43

Veteran Israeli politician Shimon Peres quit the Labor Party on Wednesday, leaving his political home of nearly six decades to campaign for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new centrist party.

Peres, an 82-year-old former prime minister who has held every major Cabinet position, left Labor after his humiliating loss three weeks ago to union leader Amir Peretz in the race for party leader. He said he was supporting Sharon as the person who had the best chance of restarting the peace process with the Palestinians.

"This has not been an easy decision for me, but I found myself faced with the contradiction between the party of which I am a member, and the requirements of the political situation," Peres said. "Without ignoring the deep connection that I have to the party's historical path and its members, I must prefer the more urgent and greater consideration ... My party activity has come to an end."

Peres' defection was a coup for Sharon's new Kadima Party as the major political factions scramble to snare high-profile supporters ahead of March parliamentary elections. Many Israelis respect Peres for his decades of service to the country, but some view him warily as a dove and a political opportunist.

Under a reported deal worked out with Sharon, Peres would campaign for the prime minister ahead of the elections without officially joining Kadima. If Sharon wins, Peres would receive a senior Cabinet post, either dealing with the peace process or with his pet project to develop Israel's sparsely populated Negev desert and northern Galilee regions.

"I don't believe that it is possible to push forward the peace process in the current political situation. I believe the most qualified person for this is Ariel Sharon, he will restart the peace process right after the election," Peres said. "I decided to join him and work with him."

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