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Israel’s Labor Party leader still in doubt

JERUSALEM – Two familiar figures were vying to become leader of Israel’s troubled Labor Party, preliminary election results showed today, in a piece of partisan political theater that will have important repercussions for the shape and survival of the national government.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon, dovish former head of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service, were locked in a tight race to replace Labor chief Amir Peretz, who trailed a distant third in Monday’s party-wide election.

It appeared that Barak and Ayalon were headed for a runoff because neither would reach the 40 percent of votes necessary to win outright, partial returns indicated. The runoff would be held in two weeks.

The Labor Party, a former pillar of Israeli politics that has been on the sidelines of power for most of this decade, is nevertheless the largest coalition partner of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, leader of the centrist Kadima party. Labor’s new leader will have a critical role in Olmert’s efforts to hold on to office – and may well lead the battle to oust him.

“I think many people understand that we are, in fact, not just voting on the future of the Labor Party but to a very large extent on the future leadership of the state of Israel,” Ayalon told supporters as he cast his ballot.

Olmert is reeling under the scathing results of an official inquiry into his handling of last summer’s cross-border war with the militant Islamic group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Many experts believe he will be forced to resign when the inquiry issues its final report later this summer.

Ayalon has already said he would withdraw from Olmert’s government unless the prime minister steps aside, a move that could send Olmert to other right-wing parties for support or lead to new elections. Or it could force him out, to be replaced by another senior Kadima official, such as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Barak has indicated he would remain inside Olmert’s government, but it is clear he would use the perch to lead Labor into a national election that he hopes would restore him to the prime minister’s office that he was ejected from six years ago.


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