updated 11/16/2008 4:48:25 PM ET 2008-11-16T21:48:25

A group of high-profile Israeli politicians, intellectuals and business leaders have banded together to form a new dovish faction ahead of February elections, worried by polls that give hardline opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu a strong chance of winning.

The new movement hopes to breathe new life into Israel's moribund peace movement. But its gains could come at the expense of the mainstream Labor Party, which dominated Israel's political and economic life for its first three decades. Many of the members are leaving Labor, saying it no longer stands for social equality and isn't vigorously promoting a peace agenda.

"I hope the expanded leftist movement will become a replacement for the Labor Party," the Haaretz daily on Sunday quoted author Amos Oz as saying. "The Labor Party has finished its historic role, it isn't putting forward a national agenda and it joins any coalition."

The internationally acclaimed author was among 30 prominent Israelis who announced the formation of the movement on Friday. Other members include former parliament speaker Avraham Burg and Tsali Reshef, founder of the Peace Now movement. Both men are Labor breakaways.

New group not forming new party
The new group is not forming a new party. Instead, it hopes to bolster Meretz, a leftist party that has been largely confined to the political fringe in recent elections and now holds just five seats.

Whether it will succeed is unclear. Israeli politics has traditionally been dominated by Labor and the hardline Likud Party, and past attempts to form alternatives have had mixed results. Two centrist parties formed in the past decade quickly disappeared after initial successes, while the ruling Kadima Party, formed by Likud breakaways in 2005, is expected to fare well in the upcoming vote.

Members of the group, including several from Labor, are disillusioned that Labor leader Ehud Barak, who serves as defense minister in the current government, hasn't suspended construction in Jewish settlements or taken down wildcat settler outposts.

They're also disappointed that Barak hasn't ruled out joining a Netanyahu government if his Likud party wins the Feb. 10 vote. Polls predict Labor finishing a distant third, behind Likud and the centrist Kadima.

Barak has not commented publicly on the latest fissures within his party.

Supports concept of separate state
Netanyahu says he supports the concept of a separate Palestinian state, but opposes the current U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He takes a hard line against ceding war-won territory and opposes partitioning Jerusalem, key Palestinian demands, and thinks talks should focus on economic matters.

"We need to make peace from the bottom up, rather than the top down, by improving the lives of Palestinians so that they have a stake in peace," Netanyahu told Jewish-American leaders on Sunday.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Netanyahu's approach would destroy peacemaking because the U.S.-sponsored talks that began last year are designed to achieve a treaty on all outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The time to speak about economics and fragmentation is over," Erekat fumed. "It seems to me that if Mr. Netanyahu thinks this is the course, he is closing the door to any chance for peace."

Opposition to Netanyahu's approach
The new movement that's coalescing also opposes Netanyahu's approach, and urges energetic efforts to achieve a final accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

Meretz chairman Haim Oron told The Associated Press that the new movement hoped to draw votes from "the parties of apathy and despair" — disillusioned Labor voters, centrists who voted for the ruling Kadima Party in the last elections in 2006, protest voters and people who haven't voted in the past.

Oron said the intent was to mobilize voters who identified with Meretz's goals but were reluctant to vote for a party with a small presence in parliament. The new party would not sit in a Netanyahu government, he said.

Skeptics questioned whether the new movement's appeal would extend beyond the circle of likely Meretz voters. But it could have an impact if it manages "to wake up other voting populations," like young people who ordinarily wouldn't bother casting ballots, said political scientist Gideon Doron.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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