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In a hoarse voice that fades away as the conversation goes on, and with a sore throat from the extreme shifts in climate he experiences between the air-conditioned car and oppressive heat outside, Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer says: "Don't eulogize me, don't eulogize me. The polls have never been flattering to me, but I always won. That was the case when I ran against Avraham Burg for party leadership; that was the case in the Knesset primaries. I was predicted to finish eighth and I finished second, and that is what is going to happen this time, too. I'm going through to the second round."

According to the polls published in the three largest newspapers - Yedioth Ahronoth, Maariv and Haaretz, - Fuad is ranked last in the race for Labor leadership, behind Shimon Peres, Amir Peretz, Ehud Barak and Matan Vilnai. Two other polls, on Israel Radio and Channel 2, ranked him third, and Ben-Eliezer seizes on these polls like a drowning man.

However, Ben-Eliezer was forced to admit that something is not working. Based on his pronouncement at the end of the membership drive, he signed up 35,000 people. If 60 percent of them had said his name to the pollsters, he would have grabbed third place in the ranking. I have no idea, he says sincerely, when asked to explain his low ranking. Later he goes off on a rant about his 10,000 membership forms that vanished, the thousands of other forms that were added to the voters list after the roll-call ended, the grave irregularities that cast a heavy shadow over every step of the membership campaign.

Ben-Eliezer's people speak expressly of a "Sicilian mafia" that has taken control of the Labor Party. They are referring to Amir Peretz's people. "Shimon Peres," they say, tossing in a curse, "gave them [One People] deputy secretary general status at a time when there was no party secretary general, and they did whatever they wanted there. They wasted millions. They threatened hundreds of workers with losing their jobs. Where did we ever hear of such things? This isn't the Labor Party anymore."

The allegations voiced by Ben-Eliezer, Ehud Barak and Matan Vilnai about the validity of the membership drive are more than just letting off steam. They are intended to cut the branch of legitimacy from under Peretz in the event that he is elected to be the leader of the Labor Party. Peretz is liable to discover that the leadership campaign was the easy part of the story. If elected, he would need a magician's skills to impose his authority on the party.

Barak forgot

On February 19, 1997, shortly after the helicopter disaster, the Labor faction convened for its weekly meeting. The Israel Defense Forces were mired deeply in Lebanon and the faction was troubled by just one thing: how did faction member Yossi Beilin dare to take part a few days earlier in a meeting with other MKs at the home of Gideon Ezra from Likud, in a discussion of a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.

Like foxes tearing at the flesh of a bleeding deer, the MKs swooped down on Beilin. They reprimanded him, scolded him and humiliated him. The only option, said party chairman Shimon Peres was renewal of negotiations with Syria. You raised the morale of Hezbollah, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer hurled at Beilin. You weakened Israel's standing, accused Ephraim Sneh.

Most belligerent of all was Ehud Barak. A unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon, he said, is an irresponsible abandonment of northern Israel, a gamble on the lives of civilians and a strengthening of Hezbollah. This proposal, said Barak, is suited to headline-hunters and not to people with a responsible approach to security.

At a press conference held after his return from abroad last week and in interviews to the press, Barak said the polls predicting his defeat in the primaries are of no interest to him. "Even when I proposed leaving Lebanon," said Barak, "72 percent of the public were against me."

Apparently Barak was confused. The pullout from Lebanon was initiated by Beilin, in 1997. When Beilin proposed it, only 18 percent of the public backed him. The primaries for the leadership of the Labor Party in June 1997 (in which Barak beat Beilin, Sneh and Shlomo Ben-Ami in the first round) were partly a vote on the unilateral withdrawal initiative. Barak was against it. Very much against it. He rode the wave, and declared his intention to leave Lebanon only two years later, in the summer of `99, about two months before the prime ministerial and Knesset elections, during an interview on television's "Popolitika."

At the time, a majority of the public was already behind the idea of withdrawal, and Beilin was stuck deep in the heart of the consensus. Everyone wanted to get out of that foul land; Barak's advisers could see it in the polls, Barak spearheaded the initiative, and boldly kept his promise, too - despite the army's misgivings. Last week, in light of his dismal situation, Ehud Barak decided to rewrite - viciously rewrite - history, not to make do with his own deserved credit, but also to steal that of others.

Beilin, calm and cool as ever, doesn't bat an eyelid. "People always say you can't change the past, but look here," he says. "They're always changing it. Let there be no mistake: I admire Barak very much for getting us out of Lebanon."

Peres foresees

A visitor from another planet who happened to drop in at a performance of Shimon Peres would no doubt gain the impression that the man was running not for the leadership of Labor but for the job of chief scientist in a leading Silicon Valley high-tech firm. Peres spins for his listeners a nano-technological, futurist vision, until they are forced to admit that the man is himself a phenomenon. He has no present, only a past and a future. Even his future is a little old-fashioned.

What does Peres tell his audience, which usually comprises wretched retirees who are a good few years younger than he? That in another few years, people will live to be 150. And he talks about an American invention called Smart Dust - millions of sensors scattered in the air that are capable of identifying a suicide bomber on the way to carrying out an attack; and about smart clothing that is now under development, capable of supervising the human body's systems and informing a control center of every change in blood pressure, in the pulse rate. A few weeks ago, he appeared in Jaffa before a crowd of Labor voters. He assured them that when the day comes, and that day is not far off, car engines will be the size of a pinhead. Really teeny. One of those present, a mechanic, went pale. "Oy!" he said. "So how am I going to machine the cylinder heads?"

Azzam doesn't rule it out

Once a year, on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba'omer, dozens of Likud activists are in the practice of gathering at the home of their colleague Gilad Mizrahi, the assistant to Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra. They eat a little, drink a little, but mainly they talk about local politics, the effervescent politics of appointments of the Likud Central Committee. It is an intra-party event, pure politicking, devoid of significance, of which there are many others like it. Still, the last time the event was held, something happened. The gaggle of members of the Likud Central Committee that crowded on the lawn was joined by an unexpected guest who is himself intriguing, a resident of the Galilee village of Maghar, Azzam Azzam.

The freed prisoner circulated among the activists, accompanied by a bunch of helpers from his village, shaking hands, introducing himself, as if there were any need to do so, and showing interest in what was going on. Several of those present gained the impression that Azzam Azzam was at the height of a political campaign. The rumors of Azzam's intention to join Likud and run for a spot on the Likud list for the next Knesset, as part of the minorities sector, is not news. What is new is the seeming activity of the seeming candidate.

The Likud constitution states that anyone wishing to be elected to the Knesset must have been a member of the party for at least 16 months. Azzam does not have 16 months until the runoff in the Likud Central Committee, but he has a way out: the Likud secretariat is permitted to absolve very attractive candidates or others with special circumstances from this restriction. If Azzam wishes, he would have no problem explaining why he was unable to sign the membership form in recent years.