Labor's Barak may now shore up Olmert


MIDDLE EAST:Former prime minister Ehud Barak's remarkable political comeback yesterday, when he won back leadership of the dovish Labor Party six years after being unceremoniously tossed out of national office, could unexpectedly shore up prime minister Ehud Olmert's floundering ruling coalition.

Another former prime minister, veteran Israeli statesman Shimon Peres, also won election yesterday, when parliament voted him in as Israel's next president.

Mr Barak (65), a former army chief, beat off Labor lawmaker Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel's Shin Bet security service.

In a tight race, Mr Barak won 51.2 per cent of the vote to Mr Ayalon's 47.8.

Mr Barak, much maligned in the Israeli public - and in his party - after he left office in 2001 following the collapse of peace talks with Yasser Arafat and the outbreak of the second intifada uprising, clawed his way into the leadership race after lying a distant third just a few months ago.

He will take on the influential post of defence minister, which is being vacated by outgoing party leader Amir Peretz, who lost in the first round of voting in the Labor primary two weeks ago.

While Mr Barak has threatened to pull out of the government over Mr Olmert's refusal to resign in the wake of a scathing report on his handling of the war in Lebanon last summer - the new Labor leader has given Mr Olmert until the issuing of the final report in August to quit - few believe he will be in a hurry to bolt.

He will want to spend time in office resurrecting his image among the general public, as he did among Labor members, before challenging again for prime minister.

Mr Barak is also unlikely to encounter many Labor members who will try to persuade him to make good on his threat to quit the government: Laborites know that if he does, they could find themselves out of government for a long time, especially with opinion polls indicating that Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish Likud leader, would win a general election.

Hence, if the final report on Mr Olmert's conduct during the war enables him to continue in office, Mr Barak's victory could lend him a period of stability. Last night, some political commentators were even referring to the outcome of the Labor primary as "Olmert's second chance."

Many Israelis are hoping that Mr Peres's election as president will help to resurrect an institution that has been battered by scandal. Outgoing president Moshe Katsav, who beat Mr Peres in the race for the presidency in 2000, is facing allegations of having raped an employee and having sexually assaulted several others.

Mr Peres, who has never won an election outright, but has held almost all of the top positions in public office in a 60-year career, said yesterday his role was "not to deal with politics and partisanship, but to represent what unites us". The 83-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate will be sworn into office on July 15th for seven years.