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The competition between Ehud Barak and Ami Ayalon for the chairmanship of the Labor Party is a rare opportunity to place it once again in a position of power. The realization of this opportunity is dependent on the two men's ability to combine their forces and form a team comprised of chairman and election candidate, and a designated defense minister.

In terms of quality, the Ayalon-Barak duo will surpass any alternative by Likud or Kadima, if it at all survives. Their agenda and their ability to realize it may captivate the voters who abandoned Labor in the last three campaigns, in which Barak, Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz were defeated.

It may be unrealistic to expect this union between Ayalon and Barak to materialize just now. Ayalon's current lead in the polls is too small to be deemed anything but reversible, at least in Barak's eyes (it is nonetheless consequential because it demonstrates that the voters prefer Ayalon to Barak). Both candidates are at present too committed to their respective supporters: Neither can disappoint the donors and the activists by giving up without a fight.

Until the primaries scheduled for May, both Ayalon and Barak will showcase themselves. If they both stress their own virtues instead of their rival's faults, then the party stands to gain. It will have both Ayalon and Barak, not either or.

After Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli public is hungry for leadership with a clean and experienced CV - the antithesis of all that is Olmert. Perhaps because of his long career in the Mediterranean waters as commander of the IDF navy, Ayalon is clean as bleach, a regular Mr. Snow. Barak, on the other hand, is Mr. Pro, having more experience in war and peace than any other Israeli politician. The two candidates complete each other, and they both need a term in power to receive what they lack.

Ayalon has no ministerial experience whatsoever. He has never been a cabinet member and has never been called on to make choices between equally important national causes. Barak is more adept at ruling than he is at getting elected.

He won in the 1999 elections because he was up against Benjamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Mordechai. He lost in 2001 because he was up against himself, regardless of Sharon, who was still carrying negative electoral baggage from his past. Come the next election, Barak will still be up against himself.

Barak's managerial virtues that qualify him as an excellent defense minister are his weaknesses as an electoral candidate: His rationalism threatens to overrule all other emotional considerations. Another one of Barak's qualities, as he demonstrated as the deputy of former chief-of-staff Dan Shomron - and as Shomron's political rival - is his ability to serve under political adversaries who had just beaten him in elections.

He agreed thus to serve as defense minister under Sharon, but the nomination was thwarted. Two years later he agreed to serve as defense minister under Mitzna as well, but that nomination was also thwarted - by former Justice Minister Haim Ramon.

Barak saw no conflict in declaring that Peretz was unfit to serve, and expressing his willingness to serve as a cabinet minister under him - a willingness that Peretz promptly rejected.

This is an important, calming virtue because the last thing Labor needs is a rerun of the harsh conflicts between Moshe Dayan and Yigal Alon, or those between Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

Nor does it need a modern edition of the intricate rivalry between the commander appointed over his former commander, as in the case of former Prime Minister Rabin and his foreign minister, Alon.

Barak was the chief-of-staff who appointed Ayalon to major-general in the IDF, but this is not going to pose a problem for Barak in serving as a cabinet minister under Ayalon if he were to be elected prime minister.

At the end of the first round, Ayalon and Barak, in that order, will emerge as the finalists. They must join forces and do away with the need for a second round, with the subsequent political payment to the losing camp.

If they succeed in presenting a favorable potential cabinet with such figures as Ophir Pines-Paz, Matan Vilnai, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Avishai Braverman and even Dan Meridor, they would stand an excellent chance against Netanyahu as well as Tzipi Livni.

It might prove to be the single most important step by Labor in its route back to power.