- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2007

TEL AVIV — Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak edged out political novice Ami Ayalon for leadership of Israel’s Labor Party yesterday but not by enough to avoid a runoff.

Mr. Barak finished with 36 percent of the vote, short of the 40 percent threshold needed for an outright win. Mr. Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s domestic spy agency, won 31 percent of the vote, according to final election results last night.

A runoff election is slated for June 12.

Both men have called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign over his handling of last summer’s war with the Islamist Hezbollah group in southern Lebanon.

The current Labor leader, Amir Peretz, finished third with 22 percent.

Mr. Ayalon has pledged to seek the ouster of the prime minister after a state inquiry drew scathing conclusions about Mr. Olmert’s handling of the Lebanon war. Mr. Barak also has called on Mr. Olmert to step down but said he would serve as defense minister in an Olmert-led caretaker government.

“According to the domino theory, as soon as the Labor Party taps into the postwar sense of despair and need for change, all the other parties will follow in its wake,” wrote Nadav Eyal, a commentator for the Ma’ariv newspaper.

“In the end, the entire system will collapse into itself, and we will be headed toward [early] elections.”

Both Mr. Barak and Mr. Ayalon have stopped short of saying they would pull Labor — the largest member of the current government — out of the government, thereby forcing new elections.

Separately, Mr. Olmert announced that his Kadima party would back former Prime Minister Shimon Peres as its candidate to become Israel’s next president, a largely ceremonial post. A secret ballot will be held in parliament in June to select Israel’s titular head of state for a seven-year term.

A state panel found Mr. Olmert’s judgment to have been rash and uninformed during the war against Hezbollah last year, leaving his hold on power hanging by a thread. His popularity is at an all-time low for an Israeli prime minister.

Yet the exit polls showed that nearly half of Labor Party voters prefer to remain in the government rather than dissolve the coalition and hold new elections. Such elections, if held today, would likely bring back the conservative Likud Party.

The Labor primary marks the return of ex-generals to the forefront of Israeli politics after disillusionment with the performance of Mr. Peretz and Mr. Olmert, two career politicians with thin security experience.

“Who do you want more during a time of war?” asked Mr. Barak, the Israeli army chief of staff under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995.

Mr. Barak also has argued that he is the only candidate capable of taking on Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in a general election. His campaign placed newspaper ads listing dozens of ex-generals who have endorsed his candidacy.

Mr. Ayalon, a dovish former head of the Shin Bet security agency and a first-term lawmaker, ran on his image as a corruption-free politician capable of breathing new faith into a political system beset by scandal.

“The cleaner the election, the better my situation is,” Mr. Ayalon said at one campaign stop.

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