Israel's Labor Party taps soldier-politicians

Two retired military chiefs will face off in a vote to lead the dovish party in the wake of last summer's Lebanon war.

A pair of ex-military chiefs will contest the leadership of Israel's dovish Labor Party in a runoff vote next month, signaling renewed public appetite for soldier politicians after last summer's botched war in Lebanon.

The election last year of a pair of career lawmakers to the top two security posts was initially celebrated as a sign of a more normal brand of politics, but after Israel failed to snuff out Hizbullah's cross-border rocket attacks, an insecure public is now less likely to accept candidates with thin military experience, analysts say.

Former premier Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon, an ex-navy chief, were declared Tuesday the top two vote-getters in a primary vote held Monday. They are vying to replace discredited Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the outgoing Labor chairman, whose reputation has suffered along with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's.

"We're a nation at war.Military experience, and knowledge of defense issues is essential component of national leadership," says Michael Oren, a military historian and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute. "We discovered last summer what its like to have someone who doesn't have that background."

Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says that the push for military experience can be a setback for a democracy, but necessary given Israel's position. "Of course this is a problem for a society that wants to become more democratic and more equal.... This is not normal, but Israel is not normal; it lives in a problematic neighborhood."

Mr. Barak's first stint as Israeli premier collapsed in 2001 amid failed attempts at peace with the Palestinians and the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising. But the ex-army chief of staff has made a political comeback, placing first with 35.6 percent of the primary vote.

Mr. Ayalon, the former navy admiral who went on to lead Israel's Shin Bet secret service agency, polled 30.6 percent. Mr. Peretz, the current party leader, finished third with 22.4 percent.

The results of the runoff in two weeks are expected to be a key indicator of the life expectancy of Mr. Olmert's paralyzed coalition government. Ayalon, the more dovish of the two, who has run on a reputation for clean politics, has pledged to push for Olmert to step down. Barak has also said that Olmert should resign, but he hedged that call by volunteering to serve as defense minister in any future caretaker government headed by Olmert.

During Monday's primary vote, there was a striking contrast between the first- and third-place candidates as they made their final "get out the vote" push.

Barak, who had taken out a front-page advertisement in the Haaretz newspaper listing dozens of ex-generals who had endorsed his candidacy, repeated his message to voters for the cameras: "Who do you want more during a time of war?"

Peretz cast his ballot just as a primitive rocket fired by Palestinians in neighboring Gaza exploded near his home in the working class town of Sderot, underscoring the security challenge to the beleaguered government.

After a state commission of inquiry faulted Peretz and Olmert for not challenging the military's plan for retaliating for Hizbullah's capture of two Israeli soldiers across the border last July, the outgoing Labor leader has been criticized for not admitting his mistakes.

"He could have been the first real civilian defense minister in the most macho security establishment in the Middle East," wrote columnist Ben Caspit in the daily Maariv newspaper. "It is going to take a long time until we have [another] civilian defense minister."

Peretz, an immigrant from Morocco who rose to the helm of Israel's umbrella labor union, was initially viewed as a welcome change for the Labor Party, after 30 years under the leadership of ex-generals and Shimon Peres – a former top defense ministry official himself. Peretz made socioeconomic issues – including a promise to raise the minimum wage – the centerpiece of his campaign for party leadership last year.

"Some Israelis wanted to run away from the everyday issues of foreign affairs and defense, and to deal with social problems. But this didn't work," says Professor Rahat. "We had the war, and Peretz was considered by many not to function well, so we're back to regular politics."

Polls predict that if elections were held today in Israel, Likud Party Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu would become prime minister. Although Mr. Netanyahu was never a general, he is a veteran of one of the army's top commando outfits and has authored books on terrorism.

In Olmert's Kadima Party, one of the potential successors to the unpopular prime minister is former army Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz.

Ex-generals have traditionally been sought after by political parties as major electoral assets, allowing them to vault to the top of party hierarchies. Six months after leaving the military in 1995, Barak was appointed as interior minister, and in November he became foreign minister following the assassination former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

While Israel's parliament recently passed legislation to lengthen the mandatory time period between a general's retirement and their entry into politics, analysts such as Mr. Oren maintain that a military background is still essential for those steering the country.

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