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Defense Minister and Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak is becoming increasingly popular as a prime ministerial candidate, according to a new Haaretz-Dialog poll.

Past polls gave Barak only single-digit support. But in the latest poll, 34 percent preferred Barak as premier, compared to 42 percent for Likud Chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert trailed behind, with 9 percent support.

The poll gave Labor 25 seats if elections were held today - six more than it has at present. Likud, headed by Netanyahu, would be the largest party, with 31 seats, up from its present 12. Kadima placed third on the list, with 11 seats, 18 fewer than at present.

It is therefore clear that the contest in the next elections, which could take place as early as the middle of next year, is between Barak and Netanyahu, Labor and Likud. The "big bang" that produced Kadima has almost totally dissipated.

However, Labor and Kadima voters among the 480 people polled showed a clear preference for another "bang" that would merge the two parties into a common list that would run against Likud in the coming elections. Among Kadima voters, 49 percent favored such a united front; among Labor voters, the number was 53 percent.

The poll, supervised by Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University's statistics department, also checked the job approval ratings of Olmert, Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Olmert once again trailed, with a 15 percent approval rating, while Barak received a 28 percent rating, reflecting the public's wait for him to produce results. Livni, despite a decline in support following her decision not to resign from the cabinet, still received a 50 percent approval rating from respondents.

Among Labor voters, only 36 percent said that they were satisfied with Barak's performance as defense minister, as opposed to 57 percent of Kadima voters. If Olmert were not in the picture, 46 percent of Kadima voters said they would prefer Barak as premier, compared to 31 percent for Netanyahu.

Many respondents said they did not know how newly appointed Finance Minister Roni Bar-On would perform, but of those who had an opinion, most thought he would be unsuitable. With regard to Haim Ramon's ministerial appointment, 39 percent of respondents approved it and 53 percent disapproved. Among Labor voters, 50 percent supported Ramon's appointment; among Kadima voters, the number was 63 percent.