Tel Aviv, Israel — If Israel's resurgent Labor Party did not stand to win next year's national election, the bitter internal struggle between its two candidates for the premiership would be of little interest.
But party chairman Shimon Peres knows that the public opinion polls consistently show Labor far ahead of incumbent Prime Minister Menachem Begin's right-wing Likud-National Religious Party coalition. And having spent the past 3 1/2 years bringing labor back to strength, Mr. Peres believes he deserves to head its next government.
The Jewish state's intense and often obsessive political activity creates situations that run parallel to those experienced by the Western democracies that are its models.
Just as President Carter faced a powerful challenge within his own party from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, so aspiring prime minister Peres is haunted by a bitter Laborite rival: ex-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Likewise, the dispute among Israeli Laborites over the proper procedure for choosing their leaders parallels that of their British counterparts.
Messrs. Peres and Rabin have been at each other's politial throats since 1974 , when Mr. Rabin was parachuted into the party arena to defeat Mr. Peres for Labor's nomination as successor to the late Mrs. Golda Meir, who had resigned in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war. Mr. Rabn's victory was largely due to Mrs. Meir's help and that of Labor's late boss. Finance Minister Pinchas Sapir.
It was not an easy victory, however, and Mr. Rabin had to acknowledge the substantial backing within the party's central committee for his rival by giving the Cabinet's no. 2 post, the Defense Ministry, to Mr. Peres.
Still, the rivalry persisted throughout Mr. Rabin's three years office, often generating mutual recriminations leaked assiduously to the local and foreign press.
Mr. Peres bided his time throughout as if he expected "force majeure" (overpowering force) to bring a sudden end to the Rabin government. This indeed occurred after a disclosure that Mr. Rabin had violated Israel's foreign currency laws by maintaining a dollar account in a Washington, D.C., bank.
A secret deal with ex-Attorney General Aharon Barak, under which Mr. Rabin's name was omitted from the indictment, was predicated on his resignation. Although only Mrs. Leah Rabin's name was mentioned as sole defendant, the presiding judge referred to Mr. Rabin as well in his verdict.
Soon after Mr. Rabin stepped down, a party conclave moved to make Mr. Peres its new leader, naming him chairman and authorizing him to act as prime minister pending an imminent national election (which Labor lost to Mr. Begin's Likud coalition in May 1977).
It was at this point that individual ego defied party discipline. Mr. Rabin refused to bow out. Acting with the method of an able military chief of staff (he was in command during Israel's lightning victory in the "six-day war" of June 1967) theplucky "sabra" (native-born Israeli) built up his own organization within the party, operating from a base outside party headquarters -- a government office to which he is entitled as a former prime minister.
The Rabin forces drew added strength from the Kibbutz Meuchad contingent within Labor's ranks, a group previously headed by the late Yigal Allon, Labor's last foreign minister and deputy prime minister.
Almost immediately after Mr. Allon's death last February, the Kibbutz Meuchad and parent Achdut Haavoda factions of the Labor Party embraced Mr. Rabin as their preferred candidate for prime minister.
This shift was aided by the fact that Mr. Rabin had fought in the legendary Palmah, an elite combat arm of the pre-state Haganah, a secret Jewish defense organization. Its last commanders was Yigal Allon.
Mr. Rabin's current strategy is to demand that the party convention scheduled for Dec. 17 be empowered to select Labor's front-runner and not the outgoing functionaries elected to the previous convention.
Ideological considerations evidently are secondary. They were adjusted to the new base of support obtained from Kibbutz Meuchad-Achdut Haavoda. For example, Mr. Rabin toned down an originally "dovish" stance to avoid contradicting the kibbutzniks, who favor prompt annexation of the occupied Golan Heights rather than letting its destiny be determined at the negotiating table with Syria.
The Peres campaign is being orchestrated by the public relations skills of Eliezer Zhurabin, an advertising agency executive who helped ex-Defense Minister Ezer Weizman sell the Likud Party coalition to the Israeli electorate 3 1/2 years ago.
The campaign presents Mr. Peres as a sober, competent leader who takes realistic positions with regard to Israel's main concern, national security, and pragmatic ones on the key domestic problems: inflation, high cost of living, and inadequate housing.
Still, the difference between the two men are more in the nature of nuance than of substance. Both have switched sides on basic issues, particularly the fate of the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip.
As political columnist Yoel Marcus of the independent daily Haaretz put it:
"Now as before, it is not an ideological dispute that separates the two men, but a deep personal grudge."
Despite Mr. Peres's effort to bar a formal contest with Mr. Rabin at the convention in December, it seems that he will not be able to avoid one.
The odds are for Mr. Peres to win. But a strong showing for Mr. Rabin could force Mr. Peres to grant his political nemesis a Cabinet seat, thereby reversing the roles played by the two politicians in Labor's last goverment.