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Military Hero Looks Set to Lead Israel’s Labor Party

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former army Chief of Staff Ehud Barak appeared poised Tuesday to cap a meteoric rise through the ranks of Israel’s opposition Labor Party by winning election as the party’s new chairman and next candidate for prime minister.

A victory by Barak, a soldier-turned-politician who would replace former Prime Minister Shimon Peres at the party’s helm, would mark the end of an era for Labor, one that has lasted more than two decades and been dominated by rival factions led by Peres and the late Yitzhak Rabin.

And it would represent a calculated centrist shift by the party whose leaders signed a landmark 1993 peace accord with the Palestinians only to lose power last year to the right-wing Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Labor has been struggling back ever since. Devastated by the razor-thin loss to Netanyahu and the erosion of its dream of steady progress toward a final peace with the Palestinians, the party was in disarray for months, preventing it from mounting an effective opposition.

That now seems likely to change.

In a victory speech soon after early returns showed him well ahead of three rivals, Barak, 55, called the vote “a first step of hope, of renewal on the road to victory, which will lead us back to power.” He urged the party’s membership to close ranks behind him and help him “replace this failing government.”

Peres, whose five decades of political prominence came to an end recently when the party declined to give him the honorary title of president, said he would support the new leader “wherever my help is required.”

Even before the initial results of Tuesday’s primary were announced, party leaders and luminaries, including Rabin’s widow, were expressing eager anticipation of the return to a more active, more adversarial role for Labor.

“Starting tomorrow, Mr. Netanyahu will finally have an opposition,” Leah Rabin told Israel Television news. “We’ll have an intelligent, moral opposition leading in one direct way: toward peace.”

Barak has pledged to be guided by the peacemaking legacy of Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing militant determined to derail the peace process.

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But the presumed new Labor leader has proposed some limits for that effort, setting out his views on what should be the parameters of a permanent peace settlement with the Palestinians. He has said he would never allow Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders--which excluded the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem--and would fight any attempt to redivide Jerusalem.

Barak’s apparent victory Tuesday came over Yossi Beilin, 47, a Peres protege who was a key player in the secret Oslo meetings that led to the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement; Shlomo Ben-Ami, 53, a university professor, first-term legislator and former ambassador to Spain; and Ephraim Sneh, a physician who is a former health minister and former Israeli military governor of the West Bank.

The next general election is not scheduled until 2000, but Barak has predicted that Netanyahu’s coalition could collapse before then, setting up early elections.

The retired general, who is considered hawkish on security matters, has argued that he alone can unseat Netanyahu. “I believe I can bring Labor back to power,” he said at a preelection news conference.

That statement, along with Barak’s evident self-confidence, has prompted comparisons to Netanyahu, who stood before older and more experienced leaders of his party four years ago and insisted that he was Likud’s best hope to defeat Labor.

For now, Labor’s hopes rest with a man who joined the party less than two years ago but rapidly ascended to senior ministerial posts, including interior minister in Rabin’s government and foreign minister in Peres’ administration.

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Barak also brought with him a distinguished resume. Considered a brilliant military strategist, he is Israel’s most decorated living soldier. He is an articulate speaker and a gifted classical pianist and holds bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and a master’s in systems analysis from Stanford University.

As a member of a special forces team in 1973, he secretly entered Beirut dressed as a woman, on a mission to assassinate several Palestinian guerrilla leaders.

Avraham Diskin, who heads the political science department at Hebrew University, said Barak’s reputation for brains and bravado helped him take relatively rapid control of the party. But a leadership vacuum at the top also contributed to his rise, Diskin said.

Diskin and other political analysts said Barak appears, for now at least, to have a shot at defeating Netanyahu in the next election for prime minister. A television poll Tuesday night suggested that Barak might do just that, showing him leading the prime minister by 3 percentage points in a hypothetical matchup.

But another analyst, writing in the newspaper Haaretz, warned this week that Barak could lead the Labor Party to “glorious ruin” by concentrating on peace and security issues at the expense of social and economic issues.

Efrat Shvily of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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