Former Israeli prime minister wins Labor Party primary election

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

JERUSALEM -- A former prime minister won the Labor Party primary over a relative political newcomer, party officials said early today, in a race between two ex-military officers who both called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to step down.

Party director-general Eitan Cabel said former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had beaten Ami Ayalon, a former navy commander, after a majority of votes were counted.

Israel Radio analyst Hanan Crystal said the final count was 34,960 for Barak and 31,100 for Ayalon, a margin of 6 percent. An official announcement is expected later today.

At a victory gathering in Tel Aviv, Barak called for party unity and pledged to pursue a policy that "combines uncompromising security, protecting Israel's solidarity and democracy, determined pursuit of real peace, reinforcement of the rule of law and healing Israeli society."

Barak is expected to replace deposed party leader Amir Peretz as defense minister in Olmert's Cabinet. Despite his call for Olmert to resign over last summer's inconclusive war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Barak was not expected to pull his party out of the coalition right away.

Peretz, too, was widely criticized for mishandling last summer's war, and leaves the job highly unpopular among Israeli voters. He was eliminated in a first round of voting two weeks ago.

In the run-up to the vote, Barak said he had the experience to save the flagging fortunes of the dovish Labor, the junior partner in Israel's ruling coalition, while Ayalon countered that the party needed to start over.

Labor has only 19 seats in Israel's 120-seat legislature. The party led Israeli governments for the first three decades of its existence, from 1948-1977.

Barak, a former army chief, served as prime minister from 1999 until he was crushed by hard-liner Ariel Sharon in a 2001 election. Barak, 65, disappeared from politics after his political drubbing, amid a new violence with the Palestinians and his failure to secure a final peace deal.

Since then, Barak has reportedly earned millions advising business and lecturing in the United States while setting the stage for a political comeback.

Ayalon, who carved out a niche as a peace activist since retiring as head of the covert Shin Bet security service, had presented himself as a fresh face untainted by mistakes and scandal.

Ayalon spent decades in the military, eventually becoming commander of the navy. After serving as head of the Shin Bet in the late 1990s, he worked with Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh on a grassroots peace initiative dubbed the "People's Voice" that they hoped would pressure both sides to restart negotiations. He has been a member of parliament for just over a year.

As defense minister, Barak could take advantage of the national stage to try to show that he is a better leader than Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu of the hard-line Likud Party, three possible competitors for the nation's top job.

In the first round of Labor Party primaries two weeks ago, Barak finished first with 36 percent to Ayalon's 31 percent. Neither received the requisite 40 percent need to avoid a runoff.

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