JERUSALEM, JULY 12 -- Former defense minister Yitzhak Rabin today won the first stage of his bid for an early battle with Shimon Peres for leadership of Israel's opposition Labor Party.

About 60 of the 100 members of the party executive voted at a public meeting in favor of Rabin's request to hold elections for party chairman by the end of the month. Peres sought to delay the vote a year.

The executive will recommend early elections to the 1,500-member central committee, which will make the final decision July 22.

Rabin, who has long been at odds with Peres, challenged him for the leadership after Peres, in May, failed to form a government dedicated to peace talks with Palestinians.

Under Peres, Labor has failed to win the past four national elections. After the last election it formed a national unity government with the right-wing Likud Party of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

The coalition broke up in March over Shamir's refusal to agree to U.S. peace proposals, and he has since formed the most hard-line cabinet in Israeli history.

But opinion polls show Rabin, a former prime minister, is now Israel's most popular candidate to lead the country, ahead of Shamir.

"Unless the leadership question is settled now, the party will remain preoccupied with internal strife instead of fighting Likud," Rabin said.