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In a move unprecedented even in the eccentric annals of Israeli electoral politics, a bitter Avraham Burg conceded defeat and effectively crowned rival Benjamin Ben-Eliezer as Labor Party chief even before the polls opened – but the real triumph may ultimately belong to a man who was absent from the ballot: Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

As party chairman, Ben-Eliezer will also don the mantle of Labor's nominal candidate for the premiership. Perhaps most significantly for Sharon, Ben-Eliezer will also become the "representative" (leading) Labor cabinet minister in dealings with the prime minister - notably, in any future party decision to bolt the coalition and effectively topple the government.

Knesset Speaker Burg, a political meteor-turned-fallen star, has been the strongest voice in Labor advocating an immediate Labor exit from the unity government Sharon forged in March. Labor doves had set January 17 as their target date for quitting the coalition.

Ben-Eliezer - whom the hawkish Sharon once jokingly said he had to "restrain" as gung-ho defense minister - has been closely identified with the unity coalition and is seen as having little interest in rocking the coalition boat at least until the run-up to scheduled general elections in late 2003.

Sharon is keen to keep his broad coalition together as long as possible, as a hedge against the threat of a sudden comeback by Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Wednesday party primary was the result of months of intra-Labor dog-fighting over the results of a September primary tainted by mutual accusations of election fraud centering on the party's Druze Arab activists.

As accusations grew in intensity, Druze cabinet minister Salah Tarif -originally a strong Burg backer - charged that anti-Druze racism was part and parcel of the fraud allegations. Tarif then led the Druze community in a voter boycott that gave the kiss of death to a Burg campaign that had once appeared to be a shoo-in.

Ben-Eliezer, 65, a former general widely seen more as apparatchik than ace in the Labor firmament, was all but counted out when he threw his hat into the ring to replace former prime minister Ehud Barak, trounced by Sharon in February elections. With Burg, 46, the odds-on favorite, Ben-Eliezer garnered a dismal six percent in opinion polls surveying attitudes over a possible party leader.

Months later, however, a Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper investigative series alleging that Burg had used his position as Knesset speaker for personal gain – followed by Burg's somewhat frenzied protestations of innocence – sparked a catastrophic slide in his popularity.

Burg won the divisive September primary by a razor-thin margin. Ben-Eliezer immediately challenged the results, calling the election "a robbery" and "one of the most grievous scandals in our entire political history."

The gruff, Iraqi-born Ben-Eliezer, still known by the name "Fuad," which he bore until his family moved to Israel, declared before the polls opened early Wednesday that he would not hesitate to lead his party out of the government "the very moment" that he and his party colleagues sensed the coalition was standing in the way of furthering significant economic or diplomatic moves.

But Likud observers were betting that the election of Ben-Eliezer - whose choice as Sharon's defense minister catapulted him into prominence and into an indelible association in the public mind with Sharon's policies - would only cement the prime minister's prized unity coalition.

Fearing a covert diplomatic move, Likud hawks sympathetic to former prime minister and Sharon rival Benjamin Netanyahu have spearheaded an effort to persuade the powerful Likud Central Committee to go on record next month formally opposing any Israeli support for or recognition of the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Looming large above the political machinations was the silent figure of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who, as a direct result of the chaos in the Labor primary process, has held the position of representative Labor minister in the government.

Remarked Labor cabinet minister Dalia Itzik, "It may already be said that Fuad has won, but he faces very difficult work ahead. There is, in any case, a camp that has coalesced around Burg, and it is not small. There is another group of people that views Fuad as their equal at best, and at times, as less than that," she said.

"And then there is Peres, a personage who, whether you agree with him or not, carries great weight in the Labor party. And there are those who want this spiritual father [Peres] to move over, and I am among those who will not allow this," said Itzik.

Notes Ha'aretz political correspondent Yossi Verter, "One important ally for Ben-Eliezer, if he wants to stay in the government, is Peres, whom the party voted to be its representative senior minister in the government.

Ben-Eliezer might not want to challenge Peres for that title if he wants to keep Peres on his side on the issue of staying in the government. In the past, Ben-Eliezer supported Burg's idea of naming Peres president of the party, but in recent weeks, he's been silent on the subject."

Verter writes in Wednesday's paper that if critics may carp about the legitimacy of his having gained Labor's top spot, "nobody now remembers how George W. Bush made it to the White House. But everything depends on how Ben-Eliezer handles the job. The question is whether he will be able to unify the torn party, rehabilitate it as an organization with an ideology, formulate its policies, and win the approval of its senior leaders - Shimon Peres, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Yossi Beilin, Haim Ramon and, of course, Burg."

"Barring the unexpected, the Iraqi-born Ben-Eliezer will be the first Sephardi leader of the Labor Party. One of his first decisions may be choosing between his beloved defense ministry in the Sharon government, and his commitment to a party that will most likely demand he quit the government, become the opposition leader, and define the party's alternative policies to prepare it for government."