In beleaguered Israel, a return to the old guard

Former premiers Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres are tapped for Labor chief, president.

In this land of the comeback kid, Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres, two of the veteran politicians who led peacemaking efforts in the 1990s, are poised to step into roles that may shape the Middle East for years to come.

Early Wednesday morning, Ehud Barak, prime minister from 1999 to 2001, was declared the leader of the center-left Labor Party after a tightly contested leadership race. Hours later, Shimon Peres, the octogenarian statesman who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the 1994 Oslo Accords, was declared the new president of Israel, with 86 percent support.

To some, this return of two politicians with roots in the pro-peace Labor Party signals a public craving for leaders who have demonstrated two characteristics: a keenness to make peace with Israel's neighbors and a hawkishness in preparing for the possibility of waging more war with them.

"People are looking for a leader who gives them a sense of direction, and people are turning their backs on inexperience and lack of vision," says Gidi Grinstein, who served in the prime minister's office under Barak and was also the coordinator of the Israeli negotiation team on the permanent status talks between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Mr. Barak will join Israel's unity government as a defense minister, but analysts say his goal is to eventually bring down the government of Ehud Olmert and to force new elections. "Barak is in it to run the state and nothing less," says Mr. Grinstein, now president of the Reut Institute, a policy group in Tel Aviv.

Barak has indicated that he will not threaten Olmert's government by pulling the Labor Party out of the coalition until a final state report on Israeli leaders' behavior in the Lebanon war is released this August. But knowing that most of the public expects Olmert to be pushed from power, Barak's campaign was in large part about who could beat Benjamin Netanyahu, Olmert's expected successor as the leading right-wing candidate.

Given Netanyahu's persistent popularity on the right and the successful return of Barak, analysts here expect that Israel will once again have a two-party system, with smaller parties in the wings.

This, along with the public's disillusionment with the unilateralist approach promoted by Kadima as envisioned by its founder, Ariel Sharon, is likely to take the wind out of Kadima's sails as a centrist alternative.

"No one is more centrist than Barak, and because of that, he will present a clear challenge to the constituency of Kadima," Grinstein adds.

In the past, a victory for the Labor Party would have translated into increased expectations for a return to peace talks, but today the political landscape has shifted dramatically, making an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal further out of reach.

Barak is one of Israel's most decorated military figures. To Israelis, he's considered brilliant: He holds a master's degree in systems analysis from Stanford University and is known to take apart and reassemble watches in his spare time.

He's a man who likes to figure out how things tick. But it's a hobby he often prefers to pursue on his own, colleagues have complained. Many attributed his failure to be reelected in 2001 to his being loathe to consult with others in decisionmaking.

Daniel Ben-Simon, a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper, says that Barak's return is a result of Israel's disappointments in its war with Hizbullah last year.

"Barak's success is about one thing: the second Lebanon war," says Mr. Ben-Simon. "The failure of the army has brought Israel the need for a military superman, and Ehud Barak exploited this need for someone who will restore Israel's military might."

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