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Former prime minister Ehud Barak, a leading candidate for the leadership of the Labor Party, addressed supporters Sunday, presenting himself as the candidate to contend against Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu as the next prime minister of Israel.

"We will return to lead the country, and not in the too distance future," he told a crowd of 1,500 supporters at Kibbutz Yakum in his first public address in months.

"Without us there will be a terrible vacuum that will threaten the Israeli democracy, and without us it will be Bibi and the Likud as the political defaults," he said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

Barak refrained from directly referring to his Labor rivals - MKs Ami Ayalon, Ophir Pines-Paz and Danny Yatom and Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

He said he is ready at any moment to take on the role of defense minister, but also hinted at the possibility of the Labor Party leaving government and presenting itself as a political alternative.

"With the changing reality, it is upon us to be attentive to this - we will have to present an alternative and a response to any development," Barak said.

Appearing before Barak were Minister Without Portfolio Eitan Cabel, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog, Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and MK Orit Noked.

The speakers highlighted Barak's experience in political and security matters.

Barak presented his colleagues as potential candidates to lead the Labor Party, and called on party rivals to work together with him.

Opinion polls show Barak a frontrunner to succeed Peretz, the current Labor leader, whose popularity has plummeted along with that of Olmert since the war.

Labor has scheduled a hotly contested primary race in May. Before then a commission investigating the war is due to publish its findings which may decide the political futures of Olmert and Peretz.

Barak, a former army chief and commando, declared his first goal as party leader would be to take the place of Peretz, a former trade unionist, as defence minister.

He told the rally Israel faced severe security and political challenges. "Our plane is in a nose-dive," he said.

Once an established party that ruled Israel for generations, Labor has had a high turnover of leaders since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli in 1995 for his peacemaking efforts with Palestinians.

A dovish former general and commando, Barak took the party helm after former premier Shimon Peres lost a 1996 election to rightist Benjamin Netanyahu.

Barak was elected prime minister, defeating Netanyahu, in 1999, and soared to popularity a year later by withdrawing Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, ending a 22-year-occupation.

Barak lost the 2001 election after the outbreak of a bloody Palestinian revolt following failed peace talks. After spending six years in the political wilderness, Barak announced his bid to unseat Peretz in January, amid a groundswell of allegations the army had been ill-prepared.

Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, remains the pollsters' favorite to win a national election if one were held now, reflecting a hawkish turn in public opinion since the war, and lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.