Ex-army boss manoeuvres to succeed Peres

PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

In sharp contrast to the haverings of General Colin Powell, there is seldom any doubt about the political ambitions of former military leaders in Israel. But even Ehud Barak, when he stepped down as chief of staff in 1994, can hardly have expected that in less than a year he would be Foreign Minister and the man best placed to succeed Shimon Peres as Prime Minister.

The speed of his rise has been accelerated by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, another former chief of staff, on 4 November. Mr Barak was already interior minister and a rising star in the Labour Party, whose leadership has been held alternately by Mr Rabin and Mr Peres since 1974. After the murder, Mr Peres, 72, decided to strengthen his government by appointing the general, aged 53, to a top post. The Defence Ministry was ruled out, probably because it would have given him too much power.

In three years as Israel's top general, Mr Barak enjoyed automatic respect from the media, but this popularity may not last. Raised on a kibbutz and with a degree in systems analysis from Stanford, California, he has the jaunty self-confidence born of a successful 35-year military career. His political abilities remain largely unknown, although observers have long noted his determination to be Prime Minister.

Peace talks with the Palestinians will remain in the hands of Mr Peres and Yossi Beilin, 47, the cabinet's leading dove and architect of the Oslo agreement, who joins the Prime Minister's office. The insignificance of his last job, as minister of economic planning, was underlined by the fact that the ministry was abolished on his departure.

Into Mr Barak's old job at the Interior Ministry, which he held only for a few months, goes Haim Ramon, 44, the other contender for the Labour succession. His career has been badly damaged by Rabin's death. Just as Mr Barak will be the candidate of the right of the party, Mr Ramon will seek support from the centre and left. He has, indeed, only just returned to the party after being expelled when he ran successfully against the official candidate to take over the Histadrut trade union federation.

Mr Ramon, who comes from a poor background in Jaffa, was a successful lawyer before he became a politician as a protege of Mr Peres. He switched to Rabin in the leadership battle on the grounds that only he could win power from Likud in 1992. It is not something Mr Peres is likely to forget. On Tuesday, when Mr Peres read out his new cabinet list, he inadvertently omitted Mr Ramon's name. When this was pointed out, he clapped his hand to his head in surprise and said: "Oh, Haim Ramon, of course." Mr Ramon laughed, but may fear that the Freudian slip suggests hostility on the part of Mr Peres.

The message coming out of the formation of the new cabinet is that Israeli politics is back to normal after the shock of the assassination. The Labour Party may regret that Mr Peres did not take the opportunity to hold an election, which would have turned on accusations of right-wing responsibility for the verbal violence that preceded Rabin's murder. Already the right- wing Likud under Binyamin Netanyahu has regained self-confidence.

Mr Peres has also spent time cultivating the religious parties. Meretz, Labour's left-wing partner in the coalition, said it was being given a veto power over further army redeployment on the West Bank. Mr Beilin denied this, saying: "We will not give anyone veto over the permanent agreement - over an agreement with Syria or the Palestinians."

Mr Peres appears to hanker after Labour's old alliance with the religious parties, which kept it in power until 1977. But it is unlikely to be revived. Mr Peres did appoint one rabbi, Yehuda Amital, as minister without portfolio, but his failure to win election to the Knesset shows that almost all religious Israelis are now on the right.

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