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Israeli Labor Party Leader Ousted

29 May 2007

Israel's Labor Party has voted out its current leader, Amir Peretz, who serves as Israel's defense minister in the coalition government. As VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem, the Labor Party primary vote could eventually bring down the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

In a decisive vote to change its current leadership, Labor members gave former Prime Minister Ehud Barak a slim victory in the party primary, over the former head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, Amir Ayalon.

Both men polled well ahead of Amir Peretz, but neither gained the necessary 40-percent margin of victory for an outright win.

Barak and Ayalon will now face each other in a runoff contest, in two weeks. The primary vote marks a stunning political comeback for Ehud Barak, who was defeated in national elections in 2001 by Ariel Sharon, shortly after the second Palestinian intifada began.

Zeev Feiner is a former aide to Amir Peretz and a longtime Labor Party insider. He says Ehud Barak's refusal during the campaign to speak to reporters or discuss his past performance as prime minister was a winning strategy.

"I think Ehud Barak had an amazing campaign. Instead of us talking about Ehud Barak's past and his failures in the past, we are all busy discussing whether he is talking or not talking," said Feiner. "If he would be talking, the public would be discussing his failures - did he change, did he not change what would he be doing differently from the past or what are his views. His aim was, and he managed to have us speak about him keeping silent, but he managed to keep all the problematic problems on his side outside."

Although Ehud Barak won a narrow victory over Amir Ayalon, his election as Labor Party leader in the runoff is not assured. Recent polls show Amir Ayalon gaining support from many of Amir Peretz's former supporters and defeating Barak in a runoff.

Both Barak and Ayalon called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to step down, following the recent release of a report by a government-appointed commission that heavily criticized his leadership in last year's war in Lebanon. Mr. Olmert is also under pressure from Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who would like to replace him as head of the ruling Kadima Party.

Zeev Feiner says Mr. Olmert will gain, if Ehud Barak becomes Labor Party leader, while Tzipi Livni could benefit if Amir Ayalon prevails.

"I think that Ehud Olmert is hoping that Ehud Barak is elected, because Ehud Barak will stay and keep a stable government for Ehud Olmert, because they both have an interest on buying time until elections," he said. "Then we have Tzipi Livni who wants to take over and Amir Ayalon could help her by saying he is only willing to sit in a government with Kadima if Ehud Olmert is not heading that government."

Unlike Amir Peretz, both Ehud Barak and Amir Ayalon are senior members of Israel's military and security establishment and both are seen as potential future prime ministers. However, polls show that if an Israeli election were held today, the big winner would be the right-wing Likud Party, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - leading to speculation that the next leader of Israel's Labor Party might want to keep Labor in the current coalition government, for the time being.

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