Tue, Jan 09, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Barak aims for Israeli Labor Party top job

MILITARY MAN As Israel's most decorated soldier, Barak participated in commando raids and wars, retiring from the military in 1995 at the end of his term as chief of staff


Former prime minister Ehud Barak, one of Israel's best-known politicians, is making another run for prime minister, six years after his brief term crashed in discord and failed peace initiatives.

The announcement on Sunday by Barak, 63, immediately shook up the race for the top spot in the Labor Party, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's main coalition partner. Labor primaries are set for May.

The former army commando and chief of staff said he would run against current Labor leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose popularity has plummeted following Israel's inconclusive summer war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Barak has been laying the groundwork for a comeback for months, gaining the support of key members of the party and establishing himself as the early favorite.

The next leader of the Labor Party is also likely to become the defense minister. Barak's military pedigree could give him an advantage as Israel recovers from the war while facing a potential nuclear threat from Iran.

Barak made his announcement in a brief letter to his party.

"The state of Israel, the army and the security establishment are experiencing a major shakeup. I believe that I possess the capabilities and talents necessary to serve as Israel's next defense minister," Barak wrote.

In security-obsessed Israel, the defense ministry could serve as a springboard to the premiership.

As Israel's most decorated soldier, Barak participated in wars and daring commando raids. He retired from the military in 1995 at the end of his term as chief of staff.

Joining the Labor Party, he was quickly appointed to the Cabinet. In 1999, he was elected prime minister, also serving as defense minister. But his term lasted less than two years -- the shortest for an elected premier -- and he left office under stiff public criticism for his unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 and his offers of far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians and Syrians that failed to result in peace deals. He was crushed in a 2001 election by Ariel Sharon.

But political commentator Hanan Crystal said last summer's war in Lebanon -- and the public sentiment that Israel's military must regain its might -- has restored Barak's political status.

"We need a defense minister, and everyone knows he is more suitable than anyone else," Crystal said.

"He is an authority. There will be a feeling that `the boss is back' ... no one ever argued about his abilities, but he has other problems," he said.

One of Barak's opponents for the top Labor post, lawmaker Ophir Pines-Paz, questioned that.

"I'm not sure we need a military man as defense minister," he told Israel Radio.

Barak has drawn criticism for his aloof, go-it-alone style, which alienated allies and foes alike. But Crystal said many believed Barak would learn from his past failures.

Barak seemed to acknowledge as much in the letter he dispatched to the party's secretary-general.

"It's possible I became prime minister too early. I've made my mistakes, and my inexperience became my stumbling block. Today I know there are no shortcuts, certainly not in public life, and leadership is a joint burden and not a solo mission," he wrote.

Barak will face a tough challenge for the party leadership from Ami Ayalon, another former general and one-time chief of the Shin Bet security service. Ayalon welcomed the challenge, saying the Barak candidacy would allow "a clear choice between a return to the way of the past, which we know well, and a different type of politics of honesty, integrity and responsibility."

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