Israel's Labor Party Picks Barak, Again

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

JERUSALEM, June 13 -- Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, furthering an unlikely political comeback, was elected Tuesday to head the Labor Party.

Barak's win over Ami Ayalon, a former naval chief, puts him back in charge of the party he guided to victory in national elections eight years ago. Party officials announced final results early Wednesday with Barak winning 53 percent of the vote to Ayalon's 47 percent.

"There is no regime without the public's trust," Barak said in a victory speech to supporters in Tel Aviv. "In these times of anxiety, distrust and the general feeling of a loss of direction and a loss of leadership, the Labor Party must place itself at the head of a democratic alternative for Israel."

Barak, 65, lost his 2001 reelection bid against Ariel Sharon by a landslide. His return after several lucrative years in the private sector to lead the second-largest party in Israel's parliament marks a dramatic reemergence of a politician described by colleagues and critics alike as tactically brilliant, highly ambitious, arrogant and aloof.

By choosing a former army general of European descent, Labor voters also returned the nation's founding Zionist movement to its roots after ousting the Moroccan-born former union leader Amir Peretz as chairman last month.

After winning a fifth of the first-round vote, Peretz endorsed Ayalon's candidacy in Tuesday's runoff. But that may have cost Ayalon, also a former chief of Israel's security service, support among the kibbutzniks, residents of Israel's collective farms. Both Ayalon and Barak emerged from the kibbutz movement, which is dominated by Jews of European descent.

The party leadership change holds uncertain prospects for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a deeply unpopular politician whose largest coalition partner is Labor.

Barak, a former army chief of staff whose bid for peace with the Palestinians failed with the start of the second Palestinian uprising in the fall of 2000, has called on Olmert to resign following a sharply critical state investigation into his conduct of the war in Lebanon last summer.

But it is uncertain whether Barak, who unlike Ayalon is not an elected member of parliament, will pull Labor from Olmert's governing coalition or remain a partner with his sinking Kadima party. Collapsing the government would leave Barak with no formal role.

Barak said recently that if Olmert does not step down, he will leave the government and back another candidate for prime minister, hoping to avoid new national elections nearly three years ahead of schedule.

After winning 20 of parliament's 120 seats in the March 2006 elections, Labor has fallen far in opinion polls, largely because of its partnership with Olmert during Israel's inconclusive war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Most opinion polls suggest that the hawkish Likud Party under former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whom Barak defeated in 1999, would win if elections were held today, and some polls say Labor would finish fourth.

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