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Barak wins Labor contest, gets new chance at power

June 13, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister ousted by voters six years ago, recaptured leadership of the Labor Party on Tuesday, gaining a fresh shot at political power.

Barak's comfortable win, by 51.3% to 47.7%, over lawmaker Ami Ayalon represents a remarkable political rebirth and puts an ambitious and strong-willed leader atop a party that has been adrift since he lost in 2001 to the hawkish Ariel Sharon.

"Today begins the journey toward restoration," Barak told supporters early today during a brief victory speech at party headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Ayalon's campaign alleged that there were instances of vote fraud, but he said he would accept the results.

Most analysts here said it was unlikely that Labor would immediately bolt from the governing coalition led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, of the centrist Kadima party.

Barak and Ayalon, a relative newcomer to politics, had called for the premier to step down after a highly critical review of the government's performance during the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer. But Labor lags in polls, and many members fear that holding elections soon would benefit Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud.

Barak has said he would be willing to sit in Olmert's government, presumably as defense minister, but would press for national elections within months. Several of Barak's top supporters in Labor are Cabinet ministers who want to keep their jobs.

With 19 seats in the Israeli parliament, Labor is Kadima's biggest coalition partner. If Labor stays in the government, it will give Olmert breathing room until the commission examining the Lebanon war issues its final report, expected by late summer.

Barak, who does not hold public office, sees himself as a future prime minister and is expected to make use of a Cabinet post to prepare his party for a new round of national elections.

Barak will take over a once-dominant party that mostly has been listless and on the sidelines since 2001.

Several key figures, including former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, left for Kadima when Sharon, then prime minister, formed the party in late 2005, before being incapacitated by a massive stroke.

The Labor runoff featured two men with military backgrounds who ran security-themed campaigns after last summer's war, which many Israelis viewed as a defeat. Barak was a general and former army chief. Ayalon was a navy admiral who later headed the Shin Bet domestic-security agency.

Barak retreated from politics for years after losing to Sharon following the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000. The violence came after the collapse of the Camp David peace talks that year, and many Israelis held Barak at least partly responsible for both. His tenure lasted just 20 months.

Barak, 65, got rich as a business consultant and stayed away from politics before announcing he would pursue the Labor leadership post. Seeking to shed a reputation for being arrogant and impatient, Barak said he had changed for the better.

Ayalon, 61, played on his relative inexperience in politics and image of moral rectitude at a time when a number of Israeli leaders have faced allegations of wrongdoing. Ayalon also co-sponsored a peace initiative along with Sari Nusseibeh, a moderate Palestinian academic.

Ayalon may have hurt himself in the runoff by forming an alliance with Amir Peretz, the current defense minister, who finished a distant third in the first round of voting, held May 28.

Television exit polls showed a drop in support for Ayalon from the kibbutz movement, which bolstered him in the first round. Members of the movement, long dominated by Jews of European extraction, chafed at past comments by Peretz that charged bias against Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

Barak carried the kibbutzim this time and ran well among Arab citizens, exit polls showed.

Peretz, who defeated Peres for Labor's top spot in an upset in 2005, struggled from the start to unite his fractious party. Many people criticized Peretz's designation as defense minister because he lacked experience in security issues.

Peretz was harshly criticized by the government inquiry in the war with Hezbollah but already had announced his intention to give up the defense post if re-elected as Labor's chairman. Ayalon recruited him in hopes of capturing a hefty share of Peretz's base in working-class towns heavy with immigrants.

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ellingwood@latimes.com

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