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Defense minister and Labor Party chief Ehud Barak plans to organize a bloc of center-left factions including Meretz and members of the Pensioners Party before the next elections, party sources said.

According to the plan, Labor and Meretz will run on separate platforms in the elections but will agree to form a joint party immediately afterward. Barak hopes the tactic will help him head the Knesset's largest faction, which is usually entrusted with forming a government.

Barak believes that the center-right bloc led by Likud and a center-left bloc led by Labor will face off in the next elections, party sources said. In such a scenario, uniting with Meretz will bring more Knesset seats under Barak's wing and increase his negotiating power.

In addition, Barak has not ruled out the possibility of accepting Pensioners Party MKs into Labor's ranks. MK Moshe Sharoni of the Pensioners has repeatedly said he is considering forming a splinter group with two other members of his party. Sharoni is expected to reach a decision in April. By law, MKs who form new parties after that date are promised funds to run their election campaigns.

Meanwhile, the Labor Party chairman is also closely following the Meretz party primaries scheduled for March in which four of its MKs are contending against each other: current chairman Yossi Beilin, Zahava Gal-On, Chaim Oron and Ran Cohen.

Lawyer Eldad Niv, one of Barak's closest advisers and a senior Labor party member, has recently met with Gal-On and discussed the possibility of her joining Labor's ranks.

Party sources said that polls and estimations indicate that taking Gal-On on board will attract some of Meretz's young voters due to her well-known liberal and pluralist stance. They added that Labor will continue to be a center-left party regardless of whether Gal-On joins.

Party sources also expressed concern over Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's recent improvement in the polls. According to their assessments, Kadima and Labor are competing over the same electorate and Olmert's diplomatic initiatives with the Palestinians have weakened Labor's image as the leader of the so-called peace camp.

Despite Olmert's gaining popularity, however, Barak still believes his main rival in the next elections will be Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu.

Barak and Netanyahu have a long-standing history of rivalry. They ran against each other in the 1999 elections in which Barak defeated Netanyahu. The Likud leader temporarily resigned from politics, but was reelected as party chairman in 2004.

Barak headed the government for two years until 2002, when he lost the elections to Ariel Sharon. He, too, announced his temporary resignation from politics but returned as party leader earlier this year.