Israeli leader risks losing office

Israel’s government faces fresh upheaval on Monday when the Labour party begins primaries for a new leader who could deal a final blow to Ehud Olmert’s tenure as Prime Minister.

The two leading contenders to take the party’s helm from Peretz have said that they will work to get rid of Olmert, who has been under intense pressure following a damning report into his prosecution of last year’s war in Lebanon. Labour is part of the ruling coalition along with Olmert’s Kadima party.

Peretz, also tainted by the Lebanon campaign, has already said he will resign as Defence Minister after the primaries. Opinion polls suggest that Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet internal security service, will win but may not get the required 40% of the vote to avoid a second round of voting. Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, is second with Peretz a distant third.

If there is no clear winner, a second count of the Labour Party’s 104 000 members will take place on June 13. An opinion poll published in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth said Ayalon would win a second round with 49% to Barak’s 39%.

The Labour succession, certain to shake up the government, comes at a delicate moment, with Israel anxiously watching developments in Lebanon to its north and facing renewed rocket attacks from Hamas from the Gaza Strip in the south.

Another Israeli, 36-year-old Oshri Oz, was killed by a Qassam rocket fired from Gaza on Sunday, the second Israeli to die in the latest flare-up in violence of the past two weeks. Hamas claimed responsibility for the rocket attack, which came a day after Israel killed five Hamas militants in a series of air strikes in Gaza. Israel later launched a fresh series of air strikes on targets in Gaza. Olmert told his Cabinet to prepare for “long confrontation”.

Ayalon, who also headed the navy, has said he will push for final status negotiations with the Palestinians on the borders of a Palestinian state.

Barak, prime minister from 1999 to 2001, is a former chief of staff who ended Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon and attempted to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians in the final months of his premiership. In addition to Peretz there are two other candidates, Danny Yatom and Ophir Pines Paz.

In the past it has been difficult to predict the result of a Labour primary because contestants often recruit new party members to increase their vote.

In December 2005, Peretz defeated Shimon Peres, in spite of opinion polls that suggested the contrary.

If Labour leaves the ruling coalition, Olmert will be left with a minority government with 59 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. It could seek the support of United Torah Judaism, the party of the Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox, or even the Likud party. The survival of the coalition will depend on the extent to which Olmert is willing to compromise his political principles to hold on to power.

Whatever the result of the primary, it will lead to an extended bout of horse-trading as Olmert will try to offer a high enough price to the new leader to encourage him to stay in the government and continue supporting him.

Shmuel Sandlar, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said that whatever the result, Olmert did not have much to look forward to.

“The worst case for Olmert is an Ayalon victory. He must ask Olmert to resign and the Kadima party may be more interested in the survival of the party than the survival of the prime minister,” he said.

He added that Barak’s only chance of success was if he managed to get 40% in the first round. “If it goes to a second round, Barak is finished,” he said.—Guardian Unlimited Â

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