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Labor Party leadership race takes off, implications could be broad for government's fate

Labor Party leadership race takes off, implications could be broad for government's fate

Labor Party members cast ballots Monday for their leader, a contest that could have serious implications for the makeup of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's governing coalition and his own political survival.
The two front-runners in the race _ former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and political newcomer Ami Ayalon, a dovish former internal security agency head _ have said they would work to oust the embattled prime minister, who has been discredited by his handling of last summer's war in Lebanon.
Ayalon has pledged to pull the centrist Labor out of its year-old partnership with Olmert if the prime minister's Kadima Party doesn't choose a new leader.
Some senior Labor officials oppose a pullout from the ruling coalition. But should the 19-member Labor faction bolt, the prime minister could be forced to seek parliamentary support from religious or hawkish parties that take a hard line toward the Palestinians. It could also renew pressure on Olmert to resign.
About 104,000 people are registered to vote Monday. Polls close at 9 p.m. (1800 GMT), and final results are expected about five hours later.
The latest opinion polls have shown Barak and Ayalon in a tight race to succeed the current party leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose popularity plummeted following Israel's flawed war against Lebanese guerrillas last summer. Peretz places a distant third in the polls, and two other candidates lag far behind.
As Peretz was voting in his hometown of Sderot, a crude rocket fired by Palestinian militants in nearby Gaza came crashing into the town.
"If there is an answer to terror, it is that the state of Israel is living and breathing, and in Sderot there are elections," Peretz said. "Despite everything, Sderot residents will prove that Hamas does not frighten them and will come vote at the polling booths."
No one was injured in the attack on Sderot, a favored target of Palestinian rocket squads.
Polls suggest that none of Labor's five candidates will receive the 40 percent needed to win in a single round of balloting. That would set up a June 13 runoff between the top two vote-getters, which polls say Ayalon would win.
Despite their criticism of the prime minister, both Ayalon and Barak appear reluctant to push too hard for his immediate ouster. Opinion polls show that both men would lose an election to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the hard-line Likud Party.
Labor's final decision on whether to remain in the coalition rests with the party's central committee. Many committee members are reluctant to leave the government, either because they want Labor to hold on to its Cabinet seats or because they fear Netanyahu would be re-elected.
As a political newcomer, Ayalon could use some time to build his popularity inside Labor and with the general public.
Barak, unseated as premier after less than two years following the eruption of the ongoing Palestinian uprising seven years ago, needs to rehabilitate his tarnished public image.
Casting his ballot in the central city of Kfar Saba, he touted his defense credentials and raised the specter of a Netanyahu premiership.
"I tell voters only two things: I tell them to think about who they want more in a time of war, and I tell them that only with me heading our team can we beat Netanyahu," he said.
Barak, a former military chief and the country's most-decorated soldier, and Ayalon, who also served as a former naval chief, are both expected to seek the defense portfolio.
Peretz has already said he wants to leave the defense post after the primary.
A recent government probe of the war singled out Olmert for especially harsh censure. He managed to quash an incipient rebellion against him in Kadima, but could find himself on the political skids again in August, when the war probe submits its final report.