The opposition Labor Party today took a commanding lead in national balloting for the leadership of Israel's huge labor federation, the Histadrut, outdistancing the Likud Party in what may be a bellwether for the June 30 general election.
While the Histadrut always has been in firm control of the Labor Party, the voting indicated gains by the party in all segments of Israeli society and was interpreted by some political analysts as a sign that Labor might return to power in the general election, ousting the government of Prime Minster Menachem Begin.
Projections based on incomplete returns broadcast by Israeli television early this morning gave the Labor alignment 64 percent of the nearly 1 million votes cast, compared to 24 percent for the Likud. Lesser parties made up the balance.
The Labor Party increased its showing from the Histadrut elections of four years ago by six percentage points, while the Likud dropped four percentage points.
Labor Party officials interpreted the vote as a significant victory, saying it represents a rejection of the Likud's policies. However, the Likud claimed the vote refuted predictions that the party was broken and would fare even worse.
The Labor Party showing, although it was the first time in 16 years it reversed a trend of declining percentage points, paled against its own boasts of two months ago that it would capture 80 percent of the Hisadrut vote.
Significantly, however, former foreign minister Moshe Dayan's National Renewal Party, which is expected to drain votes from Labor in the general election, did not enter the Hisadrut elections.
With 1.5 million -- the Histadrut traditionally is regarded as an important barometer of public opinion for general elections, and it was watched particularly closely this year because of the steadily narrowing gap in public opinion polls between the Labor Party and the Likud.
Beside being the largest nongrovernmental institution in Israel and the most powerful instrument of influence on the government's wage and price policies, the Histadrut represents a large cross-section of Israeli society, and includes representation of virtually all the political parties.
For more than 60 years -- beginning three decades before the founding of the state of Israel -- the Histadrut has dominated labor unionism, while at the same time developing its own vast network of economic enterprises to provide work for its members and reduce unemployment nationally.
There is hardly a segment of the private economic sector in which Histadrut does not have a controlling interest, and members, in a sense, are stockholders of Israel's largest industries and banking concerns.
The Histadrut controls Bank Hapoalim, Israel's second-largest bank; Coor industries, the country's largest industrial conglomerate; Solel-Boneh, the largest construction firm; and Israel's national hospitalization and medical insurance fund. Moreover, it indirectly controls most of Israel's collective and cooperative farms, the kibbutzim and moshavim.
The last Histadrut election, in 1977, came five weeks after Begin's Likud was swept into office in the general elections. The labor Party, still reeling from its first defeat in a general election since the founding of Israel, made an extraordinary effort to prevent the Likud from taking over the labor federation, and ended up with 58 percent of the vote.
Before today's balloting, there was little doubt among political analysts that the Labor Party would increase its margin in the Histadrut. The only question was by how much. Party leaders worried that too big a margin would breed overconfidence and complacency just before the general election.
Now, with public opinion polls showing the Likud narrowing the gap in the general election, those fears seem misplaced, and the question has been how much above 60 percent could Labor add to its Histadrut majority.
Recent polls for the general election show the Labor Party's margin slipping from 58 seats in parliament in January surveys to 45 seats, while Likud had gained in strength from 20 seats to 33. Increasingly, there is talk among political analysts of Likud gaining enough seats to put together a fragile coalition government and return Begin to power.
The Likud has narrowed the gap largely by neutralizing the economic issue, which Labor had planned to make the focus of the campaign. With the annual inflation rate running at 140 percent, Begin's government slashed income taxes and prices of popular consumer goods, a modified "supply-side" economic approach assailed by Labor officals.