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The barrage of verbal missiles being hurled at Ehud Barak by his rivals in the Labor Party shows that they too, and not only the public opinion polls, have perceived his growing strength. During the past 10 days, Barak has become the target at which every dart is aimed. Defense Minister Amir Peretz claims that Barak did not vote for Labor - a peculiar charge coming from someone who left the Labor Party, worked against it and returned to it only when he was on the brink of political evaporation. MKs Ami Ayalon and Ophir Pines-Paz are attacking him for his problematic conduct in the past and his connections with wealthy individuals.

In any case, the picture of the race for the Labor Party chairmanship is becoming clear. According to a Dahaf public opinion poll that was published over the weekend in the mass circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Barak, Ayalon and current party chairman Peretz are leading the pack - Barak with 31 percent support, Ayalon with 29 percent and Peretz with 19 percent. Trailing far behind are Pines with 9 percent and Danny Yatom with 5 percent, on the edge of the statistical margin of error. Even if there is some movement, it is reasonable to assume that Barak, Ayalon and Peretz will finish in the first three places. However, as long as there are five contenders, no definitive winner will be chosen on May 28. That will happen only two weeks later, in the second round that will take place between the two leading candidates.

These two weeks are a shockingly unnecessary waste of time. And given the political uproar that is expected to follow publication of the Winograd Committee's report, these weeks could be critical. The Labor Party needs a new leader, with a renewed mandate, and this leader will have to make crucial decisions: Should the party resign from the government? Should it work toward crowning a new prime minister from the Kadima Party, toward establishing a new coalition together with opposition leader Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu, or toward early elections? These decisions cannot be made by Peretz. Should Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resign and his replacement from Kadima want to start coalition negotiations to establish a government, with whom in Labor will he or she conduct the talks? With the current chairman, whose defeat in the near future looks certain and whose party colleagues scorn him publicly?

The 35 days that remain until the primaries will be a time for Ophir Pines and Danny Yatom to wrestle with their consciences. As long as they remain in the race, there is no way to avoid a second round. But if both of them withdraw their candidacies, the chances of a clear winner on May 28 will increase substantially. According to the Dahaf poll, Pines has lost 8 percent in the polls in six weeks. This is a real crash, and not unexpected. His supporters are realizing that their precious votes are about to go down the drain and they are finding new homes - the majority with Barak and a minority with Ayalon. Pines is a good fellow, in the good sense of the word: He is the attractive face of the party, but he is far from being ready for the position of prime minister - though in a peaceful European country, he could be an excellent prime minister. He ought to hook up with either Barak or Ayalon.

While Pines is running on a civil platform, Yatom's candidacy is incomprehensible, unless it is aimed at gaining him a comfortable place at the starting line in the internal elections for Labor's next Knesset list. He has an impressive security background, but between Barak - his friend and to some extent his political patron - and Ayalon, he gets lost. According to one veteran politician, his insistence on staying in the race stems from his desire to prove to Barak that he is not in his pocket. This is a human and even touching motive, but it is not serious.

The Labor Party does not have time for games of honor. In the era of uncertainty that is expected to begin here next week, the public will be looking for a strong support to which to cling. The faster the Labor Party chooses a leader and forms a leadership around him, the better its situation will be - and this would not do the country any harm either. Pressure to cancel the second round must come from below, from the rank and file: the registered party members, the activists, the central committee members and the Knesset members. One round is enough - and after that, Labor must get to work.