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Last Tuesday, in the daily session with Shimon Peres for letting off steam, Labor MK Matan Vilnai told of his impressions of his visit to Kibbutz Sde Boker, at the annual memorial service for Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. "Everyone who becomes a candidate for chair of the Labor Party immediately goes down to Sde Boker," said Labor MK Haim Ramon, "look at Ehud Barak." "What do you want," said Vilnai defensively, "I've been going to Sde Boker for 28 years." "You've been a candidate for 28 years," someone remarked. Vilnai recalls that someone was Ramon. Ramon says it wasn't.

Vilnai actually enjoyed this snide comment. Immediately after this exchange he was already on his way to the Labor Party branch in Rehovot. That was the last time he participated in these meetings with Peres. He didn't attend the next two sessions to which he was invited. He decided to cut himself off from that gang, at least starting from last week.

Vilnai likes to hang around the branch headquarters. Every evening when the Knesset is in session, every day when the Knesset is not in session, and on weekends, he is in the field. What Ramon does in a decade, Vilnai does in a week. In a slow week. It's no wonder everyone at the Rehovot branch was sure to mention in front of their guest that of all the senior members of Labor, he is the only one who always comes.

Vilnai held two meetings in Rehovot on Tuesday evening. The first with party activists. The second with a group of young people. Everyone we spoke to mentioned his wonderful availability, for every invitation. Every call. Every request.

In this manner, slowly but surely, with a thoroughness and diligence reminiscent of the fable of the hare and the tortoise, Vilnai has succeeded, to a great extent to the astonishment of his Labor colleagues, in moving up to first place among the contenders for the leadership of Labor, after Peres. In a Dialog-Haaretz survey that examined the rankings of the contenders, including Peres, Vilnai and Barak are neck and neck. In a Teleseker-Maariv survey that examined the post-Peres situation in Labor, Vilnai leads Barak (24 percent to 17 percent). If we stay with the aforementioned fable, then Barak is the hare.

Straight for the jugular

From Vilnai's point of view, Barak is the chief opponent. The first sticker produced by his strategist, Dudi Berman, went straight for the jugular: "Came Only to Destroy 2." The second sticker, which was distributed to the Rehovot members, said: "Vilnai increases - Barak decreases." This is based on a survey by Rafi Smith which indicated that "Vilnai as head of Labor, 25 Knesset seats - Barak as head of Labor, 16 Knesset seats."

"He was sure I would be with him," says Vilnai in the car on the way to the branch office. "He told everyone, `Matan will be with me.' He even called me. As though he had spoken to me, as though he had consulted me. In recent months he has spoken to me more than he did during the entire period that I was a minister in his government." "He" means Barak.

Where did this hostility toward Barak come from, he is asked. After all, these two were friends in the army; Vilnai joined the Labor Party headed by Barak six years ago, before Barak became successful. "Because of that arrogance of his," he hisses angrily, "because of that sense of I-know-better-than-anyone."

This complaint against his former commander, who appointed him a minister (albeit a minor one) during his first term in the Knesset, in 1999, is the fuel that keeps him going at present. Vilnai will do everything possible to separate himself from Barak. Tomorrow, at a meeting of the Labor Party Central Committee, his people will invest a great deal of effort to achieve this. Whatever Barak says, Vilnai will say the opposite. If, as is the case at the time this article is being written, Barak, for his own reasons, wants primaries in April-May 2005, Vilnai, for his own reasons, wants primaries in May-June 2005 - it is quite certain that by the time the central committee is convened, the positions of these two gentlemen will no longer be so similar. Vilnai will not allow Barak to win.

Vilnai has no problem playing on the whole court: Last August, along with Labor MKs Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer and Ephraim Sneh, he had Labor members sign a manifesto calling for primaries in February 2005. Afterwards, when Barak entered the picture, and for a moment it looked as though Vilnai supporters (the United Kibbutz Movement, for example) were flowing in his direction, Vilnai joined up with Peres, who wanted primaries in November 2005. Now he is talking about May. But his partners to the initiative, Ben-Eliezer and Sneh, are divided between themselves: Fuad wants primaries as late as possible, in order to sign up as many new members as possible. Sneh wants them earlier. Peres is hesitating between November 2005 and February 2005. As MK Eitan Cabel said, paraphrasing the American soap opera "Soap": "Confused? You won't be after the next episode."

A loner

The Labor faction has begun to talk about Vilnai as the "dark horse" that is likely to forge ahead and beat his opponents. He is not greatly admired in the faction. Although he is considered a decent and pleasant guy, the most popular statement about him describes him as a "oaf," or "bumpkin," partly because of his vague, noncommittal messages and partly because of his clumsiness, slowness and hoarse voice. He is never caught making challenging, controversial statements. He is sure to place himself in the center. His decency caused him to express support for his military colleague, Amram Mitzna, when Mitzna announced his candidacy for the Labor leadership - something for which Vilnai still hasn't forgiven himself. In the Labor faction, he is considered a loner. As a member of the opposition, he is not a great success. When Labor faction chair MK Dalia Itzik complains that she has nobody to help her contend with the wolves and the foxes in the Likud, she is referring primarily to Vilnai. But not only to him.

"He's okay, but he has no opinion about anything," says a Labor colleague. Even in the meetings in the Rehovot headquarters, Vilnai does not electrify the atmosphere. His messages are simple. Occasionally simplistic. "We have to elect a person who will first of all know how to embrace the party and open it to new electorates," he says. "The question you have to ask yourself is whether to vote for a man you can rely on, who will not abandon you in times of trouble."

Good words for Sharon

Vilnai is a member of the small group in the Labor faction that believes Labor should not vote no-confidence in Sharon - on any subject - as long as he is promoting the disengagement plan. "My lighthouse, my compass, is the disengagement," he says. He has only good words for Sharon. "He was the strongest prime minister. This decision on his part made him weak. Why [did he make the decision]? Out of national responsibility. Will we cooperate with [National Union MK Avigdor] Lieberman? With [National Religious Party] MK Effi Eitam? How will we look afterwards?

"We can beat the Likud," he says to his audience, "when it is not headed by Sharon, who is an exceptional figure. But we have to elect someone who knows how to bring from them, from the Likud, people who will vote for Labor."

Why do you think that you will be able to bring them in, asks an older woman, a member of Labor's central committee. "Because the places where I am strongest are the very places that I'm always asked about fearfully: How will we go there? Come with me tomorrow," he says to the woman, "to Sderot. To the marketplace in Dimona. To the Hatikva neighborhood [in South Tel Aviv]. You'll see how they welcome me there."

The woman is taken aback. She looks around her uncomfortably. "Tomorrow?" "Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, in a week from now," says Vilnai, allaying her fears. "Come and see."

He listens with endless patience to the words of the 30 or so young people, whose average age is 25. He has what it takes. He tells them about his days as a young officer. "Young people have always determined the fate of the country," he says.

Now he has to translate the public affection for him, which ranked him in first place in the list of Labor MKs on the eve of the 2003 elections, into leadership. Those who have been elected in first place on the list have always been people who didn't make anyone angry. A leader cannot always avoid controversy. A leader has to know how to work in a group. Vilnai meant to hold a press conference two weeks ago, and to announce his candidacy for leadership of Labor. Due to the death of Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, the press conference was postponed. A new date has yet to be set.

On the way to Rehovot, he recalls how six years ago, when he was on his way to the ceremony celebrating his joining the Labor Party, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned him and told him he was making a mistake. A few days earlier, Netanyahu had offered him the post of defense minister instead of Yitzhak Mordechai, who had left the Likud for his Center Party. Vilnai, who had left the Israel Defense Forces wounded to the core after Mordechai appointed Shaul Mofaz as chief of staff, rejected the offer and went to the Labor Party. "My wife still thinks I made a mistake," he says. "Imagine," he says to his spokeswoman, "that I were now Sharon's defense minister." The spokeswoman says something. Vilnai chuckles, a short military chuckle, and is silent. A long silence.