The agony of Israel's Labour party deepened further yester-day when, seven months after losing its prime minister, Ehud Barak, in a record-breaking electoral defeat, its contest for a new leader became engulfed by allegations of ballot box fraud.
The two candidates – Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the Defence Minister, and Avraham Burg, the Knesset's speaker – were hastily signing up lawyers in readiness for a legal brawl over accusations of cheating.
A furious Mr Ben-Eliezer, alleging "threats and thefts" at polling stations, demanded a recount after initial results showed his rival winning by a narrow margin of 1,020 votes. It was, he said, "one of the gravest political scandals in Israel's political history".
Although Mr Burg's camp declared victory, by late afternoon the party – which has been leaderless for seven months – had yet to announce a winner.
The furore was shaping up to become another setback for Labour, Israel's second largest party, which forms a key part of Ariel Sharon's coalition government. The party has been torn by internal divisions, not least because of its decision to become bedfellows with Mr Sharon's Likud party, which includes some extreme right-wingers in cabinet positions.
Its popular base has been whittled away since the start of the Palestinian uprising, as the Israeli public increasingly moved to the right – a trend starkly revealed in February when Mr Barak was beaten at the polls by Mr Sharon, who won with an enormous 25-point margin.
Although storms can blow up and then evaporate within hours in the feverish world of Israeli politics, there were ominous signs yesterday that the party was facing an ugly schism.
"The Labour party cannot give birth to a leader in sin," said a statement from Mr Ben-Eliezer, a grizzled 65-year-old former brigadier-general who has a reputation for being a tough-minded political bruiser.
The Iraqi-born ex-soldier has become a pivotal figure in Mr Sharon's government – a member of the three-man "kitchen cabinet" – who has been an advocate of ruthless measures to suppress the Palestinian intifada.
"If a party leader is elected on the basis of fraud ... it will be regretted for generations in the Labour party," his statement continued. He demanded an independent commission of inquiry, promising to accept its findings. "I definitely plan to fight this legally. I plan to take this to the bitter end," he told a news conference.
Officials said that just under two-thirds – about 62 per cent – of the party's 117,000 members voted in the contest.
Among Mr Ben-Eliezer's complaints was a claim that almost all the vote from Israel's Arab Druze community – which went overwhelmingly to the more moderate Avraham Burg – had been tampered with. His aides said that they had filed a petition to contest results from certain areas. They argued that under party rules, the declaration of the winner should be delayed for 48 hours until an appeal hearing had taken place. Late yesterday afternoon – 20 hours after the polls closed – the party's election committee was meeting to discuss a petition from Mr Ben-Eliezer demanding a full recount.
When the two declared their candidacy several months ago, the 46-year-old Mr Burg, an Orthodox Jew who is – by Israeli standards – deemed to be "dovish", was considered a certain winner. However, the Defence Minister has made good use of his position in the national limelight and has corroded his rival's lead, helped by a damning article in Israel's Yedioth Aharonot, which suggested Mr Burg was exploiting his office as Knesset speaker for personal gain.
A victory for Mr Burg could complicate the internal politics within Mr Sharon's government, whose Labour members have compliantly accepted its right-wing leaning – despite signs of tension between the veteran Shimon Peres, now Foreign Minister, and the Prime Minister.
Analysts say Mr Burg would be expected to give less support than Mr Ben-Eliezer to extreme strategies to crush the Palestinian resistance. But, no matter who wins, few expect Labour to leave Mr Sharon's coalition at this stage.