Barak's Political Fortunes Seen Rising With Each Missile That Pounds Gaza

Gaza operation prompts more people to volunteer at Labor Party headquarters.

The Israel Defense Forces operation in Gaza has prompted a surge in the number of people volunteering at the Labor Party's campaign headquarters over the last week, party officials say.

Thus far, the operation has been very popular with the public, and most of the credit has gone to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is also Labor's chairman.

The surge in people calling or emailing to volunteer their services is yet another sign of a trend already evident from the polls: a sharp rise in support for Labor in general and Barak in particular. Last week's Haaretz poll, for instance, found that Labor had risen to 16 Knesset seats from 11 in the previous poll.

The turnabout is particular striking for a party whose demise has been widely forecast just two weeks ago.

"There is no doubt that the [Gaza] operation has highlighted Barak's advantages and enabled a real discourse about the truly important matters," one senior Labor official said this weekend. "That's what we were trying to say all along: He's not a pal, he's not nice, but he's a leader. And now, people see that."

Even in the Ramle market, generally a reliable bastion of the right, support for Barak was virtually unanimous last week.

"Barak has proven himself in this operation as someone who knows how to do the work," said Shlomo Sarur, who has been a member of rival Likud's central committee for 25 years. "On security, he's good, and you can't take that away from him."

Labor officials insist that the operation's timing has nothing to do with the fact that elections are due to take place in another month, on February 10. But they readily admit that, as one put it, "his conduct in managing the operation in Gaza enables the public to examine Barak's conduct in the real world and not the world of image and style."

Officially, the party's campaign has been suspended since the operation began 10 days ago. But party officials know the campaign will have to resume the day after the operation ends, and they are therefore busy preparing their day-after strategies.

However, these strategies depend largely on how the operation turns out. If, by the time it ends, it is still perceived as a success, Barak will feature prominently in Labor's campaign as a "leader with a proven record." If not, Labor will clearly need a different tactic. But Dr. Tamir Sheafer of Hebrew University's political science program predicts that Labor's surge in the polls will be short-lived either way.

"It's all a question of how long the operation lasts and how many screw-ups there are," he said. "But from the polls we have conducted, it is possible to say that in general, rightist voters will ultimately have trouble putting a Labor ballot in the box."