- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2007

TEL AVIV — Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a leading candidate to become the next leader of the Labor Party, said he would seek early elections if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert doesn’t step down as a result of criticism over his handling of the Lebanon war.

Labor, the largest coalition partner of Mr. Olmert’s Kadima party, is holding a leadership primary on May 28, and Mr. Barak set the next day as a deadline for Mr. Olmert to announce his resignation.

“I believe that the prime minister, who I appreciate as an Israeli patriot, will find a way to draw the proper conclusions,” said Mr. Barak, a personal friend of the prime minister. “If, by the 29 of May, nothing has changed on this issue … I will try to broker a wide consensus to set a date for elections.”

Mr. Olmert has survived unrest within his own party from the blistering criticism by a government commission on the war, but the Labor Party primary is likely to bring to power a leader who supports the prime minister’s ouster.

Mr. Barak’s main rival for the Labor Party leadership, Ami Ayalon, also has said that Mr. Olmert should resign. Mr. Barak and Mr. Ayalon are expected to handily defeat the current Labor chairman, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who shares public blame with Mr. Olmert for Israel’s botched war last summer against Hezbollah.

Mr. Barak said he would be willing to serve as defense minister in Mr. Olmert’s lame-duck Cabinet.

The former prime minister appears to be hedging his bets. Although Mr. Barak wants to stand with public sentiment, which is overwhelmingly against Mr. Olmert, he could buy time to rebuild his popularity ahead of the next elections in a Defense Ministry position that allows him to temporarily prop up the government.

Mr. Barak’s image was tarnished when his government collapsed after the failure of peace talks with the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000 and the subsequent outbreak of the Palestinian uprising.

Mr. Barak’s announcement highlights how Mr. Olmert is clinging tenuously to power even though the government survived several no-confidence motions on Monday by a comfortable margin.

Internal polls among Labor Party activists indicate considerable opposition to a quick exit from the government. Such a move would be likely to force new elections, and polls show that voters would choose Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party to lead the next government.

“I am looking at the alternatives” to Mr. Olmert, said Nadia Hilu, a Labor member of Knesset. “The alternatives can lead to early elections and a right-wing-led government. Every small chance that can lead to a process that brings about this result I oppose.”

If Mr. Olmert is forced to step aside, elections could be avoided if a parliament member from his party can gain the backing of a new coalition. An increasing number of politicians and commentators are suggesting that former Prime Minister Shimon Peres could win the support of Kadima, Labor and the smaller parties to lead the government.

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