Israel’s Labour chooses new leader in key vote

TEL AVIV (AFP) — Israel’s Labour was voting for a new leader Monday in a poll expected to affect Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition, with ex-premier Ehud Barak in a tight race with a former security chief.

Party members were casting ballots to replace the current unpopular leader, Defence Minister Amir Peretz, in an internal election that one lawmaker has described as “the most important moment in the party’s history” in 15 years. Voting was to end at 1900 GMT, with the early results expected to be released two hours later at party headquarters in Tel Aviv.

The two front-runners are Barak, hoping to stage a political comeback, and former head of the Shin Bet internal security agency Ami Ayalon, a political novice aiming to burst onto the national stage.

Both have warned that they would pull Labour out of Olmert’s coalition unless the beleaguered premier steps down in the wake of a biting report of his handling of last year’s Lebanon war.

Ayalon has vowed to do so immediately and Barak has said he would serve in Olmert’s government as defence minister until early elections are held.

Should Labour and its 19 MPs bolt, it would leave Olmert’s coalition with the support of just 59 MPs — two short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

This would leave the premier with three options — to resign, to try to form a new right-leaning coalition or to call new elections.

“Olmert looks at these happenings with suspicion and trepidation,” wrote the Maariv newspaper. “According to the domino theory, as soon as the Labour Party taps into the post-war sense of despair and need for change, all the other parties will follow in its wake and in the end, the entire system will collapse into itself and we will go to elections.” According to the most recent polls, Ayalon leads the race slightly with 32.3 per cent, followed by Barak with 30.2 per cent.

Current Labour leader, Defence Minister Amir Peretz, is in a distant third with 14.7 per cent. Two other candidates are also running.

The two front-runners are aiming to get 40 per cent of the vote in order to avoid a run-off ballot, which would take place in two weeks.

Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier and a former chief-of-staff, emphasised his security background in a last-minute appeal to undecided voters and promised to heal a crisis of confidence in the nation’s leadership following the inconclusive war on Hizbollah last summer.

“I tell voters two things: First, just think of whom you want to have at time of war, and second that only I can beat” main opposition leader and former premier Benjamin Netanyahu in an election, Barak said as he voted near his home outside Tel Aviv.

Ayalon has vowed to “reinforce security and combat terrorism, corruption, put the peace process back on track and make education a priority.” “I will unite the Labour Party around me and together we will lead it to power,” he said as he cast his ballot several kilometres from his home near the northern city of Haifa. The two front-runners have sharply contrasting public images.

Ayalon, branded as “Mr Clean” by the Ynet news website, is seen as a politician untainted by graft and with a security background, but who is a political novice, never having held a ministerial portfolio and having been elected to parliament for the first time only last year.

Barak has impeccable military experience and a long list of political posts, but has not shaken off the tag of failure with which he was branded after the breakdown of peace talks with the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000.

Peretz is standing in the race despite single-digit ratings after a government inquiry said that he failed in his post during the Lebanon war. 

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