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Israel's Ehud Barak Stages Political Comeback


Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak will take over as head of the Labor Party. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem that Mr. Barak is expected to become Israel's new defense minister in the coalition government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Staging a dramatic political comeback, Ehud Barak defeated former domestic intelligence chief Ami Ayalon to take back the leadership of the Labor Party. Speaking to his supporters after winning the hard-fought contest, Mr. Barak pledged to restore confidence in Israel's military.

The former prime minister says he will work for uncompromising security, pursue peace and make sure Israel's military might and deterrence will be respected again.

Amir Peretz, who has served as defense minister, was ousted two weeks ago as Labor Party chairman, following widespread criticism of his decision-making during last year's war in Lebanon.

Earlier this year, Mr. Barak called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to step down for his conduct during the war. Now, however, Mr. Barak is expected to join the cabinet - replacing Peretz as defense minister.

Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute says the position could lead Ehud Barak back to Israel's top job.

"I think what you are going to see is Barak staying - serving as defense minister and dealing with the top security issues like Syria, Hezbollah, Gaza and on top of everything - the Iranian nuclear threat," Dromi said. "Then at one point he will probably declare that he is now having his eye on the top position as prime minister, and we will see him breaking away from the government and new elections."

Mr. Olmert's Kadima Party and Ehud Barak's Labor Party are the two main parties in the governing coalition. Polls show both would lose to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party if elections were held today.

However Uri Dromi says if Mr. Barak does well as defense minister those poll numbers could change.

"People here are very sensitive to defense issues because it is about our existence," Dromi noted. "If he takes the right decisions and gives the impression that this is a new Ehud Barak and not the whimsical, erratic and inexperienced leader he was in the former term, then I think you will see his ratings will rise."

Ehud Barak is a former commando and Israel's most decorated soldier. He was soundly defeated by Ariel Sharon six years ago after serving a tumultuous two years as prime minister. During his term he pulled Israeli troops out of Lebanon and tried unsuccessfully to pursue peace deals with Syria and the Palestinians.

His government collapsed when the second Palestinian intifada began, which left more than one thousand Israelis and 4,000 Palestinians dead.

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