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The faces of two of Labor's leadership contenders - Ehud Barak and Amir Peretz - flickered alternately on the television screen last night. Peretz looked haggard and beaten, like an admiral who has just been informed that his fleet has gone down. Barak appeared complacent and smug, like a Cheshire cat emerging from a tub of cream.

You can mock Barak's tactics when he heard his chances for winning the primaries were nil. But you cannot deny that his statements paled in comparison to those by former judge Sara Frisch, after she examined the legal aspects of the membership census. By the same token, you can admire Peretz's audacity in taking on the elites and generals, yet wonder how he could still call for holding the primaries on schedule, while the party lies bleeding of corruption on the floor.

Party Secretary General MK Eitan Cabel yesterday exposed his party's ills at a news conference. It was not pretty, but you had to respect his courage.

Shimon Peres and Peretz, who were on their way to victory and were blocked by the postponement of the primaries, were the main losers, according to the polls. Those who were lagging behind and were given a second chance - Barak, Matan Vilnai and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer - were the immediate winners.

Barak and Vilnai, who celebrated yesterday, were dancing on the Titanic's deck. A public relations catastrophe like the one Labor suffered yesterday could lead to its complete crash, or to its surprising resurrection. The probe could be painful and embarrassing, and lead to war between the candidates and their people. Shinui leader Yosef Lapid is demanding a police inquiry into the goings-on.

The new date that will be set for the primaries next week will also determine the government's fate. If November is decided on, the Labor face-off will focus on the budget debates and the day after the disengagement.

One may assume that in October or earlier, Labor will quit the government with a big row and Sharon will have to decide whether to try to take Shinui instead, or advance the elections to January or February 2006.