Israeli left pins hopes on army man

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The Independent Online
Still traumatised by its defeat a year ago, the Israeli Labour party hopes that by choosing as its new leader Ehud Barak, the former chief of staff, it will have found the candidate who can replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister in three years' time.

Labour believes that Mr Barak is the man who most resembles politically and personally its former leader, Yitzhak Rabin, another ex-chief of staff, who was assassinated in 1995.

Three years earlier, Rabin won Labour's first victory in 15 years by persuading voters he could both deliver peace with the Palestinians and guarantee Israeli security. Mr Barak's supporters argue that he has only to attract a few votes from the right to repeat Rabin's success.

Polls predicted that in the primary elections yesterday Labour party members would opt for Mr Barak, caricatured as "Napoleon" on television because of his size and meteoric career as Israel's most decorated soldier. He will replace Shimon Peres, defeated as prime minister last year, but who refused to step down as party leader.

The Labour party is still full of doubts. "Ehud Barak is an unknown quantity," says Yossi Beilin, architect of the Oslo accords and his closest rival for the Labour leadership. "He will try to beat Bibi Netanyahu by emulating him and trying to appeal to a centrist vote which I don't believe exists."

Others suspect that Labour's problems may be too deep to solve. "With Barak leading the Labour party, with its whole mission to grab votes from the militarist right, the Labour party doesn't stand a chance," says Professor Baruch Kimmerling of Hebrew University. "The exercise is so transparent as to be an insult to the intelligence of the public."

He says the real lesson of the 1996 election is that most Israeli Jews voted for parties which rejected the Oslo accords.

Political predictions are peculiarly difficult because of the fragmentation of Jewish society. Electing the prime minister separately has strengthened the small parties (it was meant to do the opposite). The third largest party in the Knesset is now Shas, a religious party drawing support from Jews whose families came from the Middle East. Natan Sharansky was able to mobilise many of the 600,000 Russian immigrants behind his new party. The division between secular and religious Israelis is deeper than ever. Ilan Pappe, a political scientist from Haifa University, says: "The main development is that Israel is becoming more Jewish and less democratic."

In such a divided society, Mr Barak, 55, may not be the ideal man to chip away at support for Mr Netanyahu.

Born in a kibbutz called Mishmar Hasharon, he has always been part of the kibbutznik-army-Labour elite. In many ways he is the prototype of the secular Ashkenazi (mostly of East European origin) establishment detested by oriental Jews. Kibbutzniks, always more popular abroad than in Israel, may make up as many as 30 per cent of those voting for the Labour leadership, but they are only 1.8 per cent of the Israeli population.

The strategy which sees Mr Barak as the Labour candidate most likely to beat Mr Netanyahu is probably correct, however. Mr Peres only just lost the election to be prime minister after a miserable campaign.

"I don't think that Labour has lost its last chance to win," says Professor Emanuel Gutman, a political scientist at Hebrew university. "Last time there were only a few tens of thousands of votes in it. Labour lost the election because of the four suicide bombs."

Many in the Labour party believe that with any candidate less fumbling than Mr Peres they would have won last year. Mr Netanyahu is distrusted by many Israelis not on the left. His first year in office has seen a series of crises and the disruption of negotiations with the Palestinians by building the Jewish settlement at Har Homa.

The real objection to Mr Barak is that he would not know what to do with victory. "Nobody can disagree with his views because nobody knows what they are," says Mr Beilin.