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NEW BALL GAME IN LABOR

Ehud Barak Gains Momentum For June 12th Runoff in Labor Party Leadership Race

Ami Ayalon Will Have To Spring Some Surprises To Overtake Barak

Is Outgoing Leader Amir Peretz Now The King-maker Or Will His Supporters Now Go Their Own Way?

Ehud Barak | Ami Ayalon

What do the results of the Labor party leadership primary auger for the campaign before the June 12th runoff? IsraCast says new issues will surface that may determine the outcome before Laborites again go to the polls to pick their new leader.

:: IsraCast Audio ::
Barak
35.6%
Ayalon
30.6%
Peretz
22.4%

The conventional wisdom holds that although Ehud Barak came first, Ami Ayalon is now favored to win the Labor party runoff on June 12th. However, there may be more to it than meets the eye.

The pundits and opinion polls indicate that although Ayalon trailed Barak by 5% , he will win the runoff - that outgoing leader Amir Peretz will throw his support behind Ayalon. Possibly, but there is another scenario as well. Undoubtedly Barak had to overcome his negative image with many Laborites and the public at large. By garnering nearly 36% of Labor's support, Barak has surpassed this obstacle. Most Laborites were ready to overlook their criticism of Barak's personality because they value his defense expertise. The result is that Barak, who trailed Ayalon for nearly all the campaign, has made a comeback and is now in Labor's driver's seat.

But is outgoing leader Amir Peretz, with 22% of the Labor ballot, now the king-maker? Both Barak and Ayalon have already approached Peretz to seek his supporters' votes in the runoff. Long before the May 28th primary, Peretz said that if he won he would give up the defense portfolio for finance. That could now be his condition for supporting Barak or Ayalon as well as a solid social agenda in the Olmert government. But will all the Peretz supporters follow their man's lead or will Barak's momentum be predominant. Although these supporters are left wing on social issues, this is not necessarily so when it comes to defense and Ayalon tends to the left more than Barak. On this score, several hundred senior IDF officers, popped out of retirement to sign huge ads in the press supporting Barak.

The former Labor party leader Gen.(ret.) Amram Mitzna is a case in point. Mitzna resembles Ayalon in several ways. He was the highly esteemed Mayor of Haifa who took the Labor party by storm but without any experience on the national level. In the 2003 election, he was made mince-meat by Arik Sharon and was later forced into resignation by his own Labor party. Mitzna has said: 'I am not a friend of Ehud Barak and I bear great respect for Ami Ayalon. But in my view Barak with his experience is best suited to cope with security problems. Ayalon's chance may come later but there is no substitute for experience'. This may be what counts more than anything else in the upcoming runoff.

On the political level, Ayalon has worked for several years with Palestinian super-dove Prof. Sari Nuseibeh on an unofficial peace document called the Geneva Accords. This has left Ayalon with a left of center posture that does not fit well with many Peretz supporters. On this score, it can be said that ' Prime Minister Ehud Barak went to Camp David with the idea of turning Yasser Arafat into a 'Sari Nuseibeh' but he ended up with an 'Osama Bin Laden'. Barak now says he learned his lesson.

There is another pertinent aspect to the Barak-Ayalon contest over the next two weeks. His running-mate MK Avishay Braverman has now declared that Ayalon will demand that the ruling party Kadima dump Ehud Olmert as prime minister as a condition for joining the government. Kadima cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit retorted: 'No way will Kadima accept such an ultimatum'. So how then is Ayalon going to propose to Peretz a social program that he will demand from the Olmert government? Ayalon may soon be seen to have painted himself into a corner and displaying a lack of political expertise. The former Admiral will appear as in need of 'basic training' in party politics. If this is true on the national level what about the international arena - Qassam rockets hitting Sderot, another war with Hezbollah, possible peace talks with Syria or the Iranian nuclear threat?

For his part, will Barak continue to steer clear of the media while hammering away to Laborites that he is the only one who can beat the Likud's Bibi Netanyahu. It appears to have worked until now so: 'If it ain't broke don't fix it?' But Ayalon will obviously seek to regain the momentum - say by presenting a plan on suppressing the Palestinian rocketing of Sderot. This could force Barak to enter a public debate. It goes without saying that Prime Minister Olmert is pleased that Ayalon did not win and Olmert can be counted on to lend a discreet hand to Barak. And it is a new campaign, until now Barak and Ayalon have been jockeying for best position at the starting gate. The real race has not yet been run.

David Essing

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