JERUSALEM - A former prime minister won the Labor Party primary over a
relative political newcomer, party officials from both camps said late Tuesday,
in a race between two ex-military officers who both called on Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert to step down.
Although the votes were still
being counted, the officials said former Prime Minister Ehud Barak would have a
final margin of victory of 6 to 7 percent over Ami Ayalon, a former navy
commander. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the tally was still in
Israeli parliament member and a leading candidate to head
Israel's Labor Party Ami Ayalon talks to reporters after casting his vote
for the party's primary elections at a polling station in the northern
Israeli town of Geva Carmel, Tuesday, June 12, 2007. [AP]
Exit polls by three Israeli TV channels also showed Barak with a slight lead,
ranging from 1 to 4 percentage points.
Barak is expected to replace deposed party leader Amir Peretz as defense
minister in Olmert's Cabinet. Despite his call for Olmert to resign over last
summer's inconclusive war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Barak was not expected
to pull his party out of the coalition right away.
Peretz, too, was widely criticized for mishandling last summer's war, and
leaves the job highly unpopular among Israeli voters. He was eliminated in a
first round of voting two weeks ago.
In the run-up to the vote, Barak said he had the experience to save the
flagging fortunes of the dovish Labor, the junior partner in Israel's ruling
coalition, while Ayalon countered that the party needed to start over.
Labor has only 19 seats in Israel's 120-seat legislature. The party led
Israeli governments for the first three decades of its existence, from
Barak, a former army chief, served as prime minister from 1999 until he was
crushed by hard-liner Ariel Sharon in a 2001 election. Barak, 65, disappeared
from politics after his political drubbing, amid a new violence with the
Palestinians and his failure to secure a final peace deal.
Since then, Barak has reportedly earned millions advising business and
lecturing in the United States while setting the stage for a political comeback.
Ayalon, who carved out a niche as a peace activist since retiring as head of
the covert Shin Bet security service, had presented himself as a fresh face
untainted by mistakes and scandal.
Ayalon spent decades in the military, eventually becoming commander of the
navy. After serving as head of the Shin Bet in the late 1990s, he worked with
Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh on a grassroots peace initiative dubbed
the "People's Voice" that they hoped would pressure both sides to restart
negotiations. He has been a member of parliament for just over a year.
As defense minister, Barak could take advantage of the national stage to try
to show that he is a better leader than Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and
Benjamin Netanyahu of the hard-line Likud party, three possible competitors for
the nation's top job.
In the first round of Labor Party primaries two weeks ago, Barak finished
first with 36 percent to Ayalon's 31 percent. Neither received the requisite 40
percent need to avoid a runoff.