Face-off Set for Late May

The Labor Party's leadership primary will take place on May 28, the party's central committee decided yesterday.

It also decided the party's membership rolls will close January 30, leaving the candidates six more weeks to register new members who might vote for them in the primary.

The party's current leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, had wanted to delay a decision on the date for at least another three weeks. However, he gave in when he realized he could lose if his motion were brought to a vote.

The final decision was a compromise among the various potential candidates, each of whom had his own proposal for when the primary should be held and when the voter rolls should close. Essentially, the deal resulted in an earlier primary date than some had wanted, in exchange for a later close to the membership drive than others had wanted.

Currently, the leading contender for the leadership is MK Ami Ayalon. Even his rivals, of which there are many among the party's old guard, admitted yesterday that if the primary were held tomorrow, he would win. He is viewed as squeaky clean, and he has good credentials both as a security expert - he once headed the Shin Bet security service - and as a peace activist: Together with Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, he launched the People's Voice initiative, under which both are attempting to market their joint outline of a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement to their respective countrymen.

MKs Ophir Pines-Paz and Danny Yatom are also planning to run, but are likely to drop out and support Ayalon if he continues to lead.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak may also join the race; his associates said last night that they believe he will announce his candidacy in a week or two. Barak has comparatively few supporters among the party's existing membership, but should Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer decide to back him, Barak's chances would improve.

Finally, there is Peretz, who is fighting desperately to retain his leadership role. Peretz's position in the party has eroded drastically since the Lebanon war, and at each central committee meeting since, he has commanded less and less attention. Yesterday, no one even listened to his diplomatic-security address at the conference.

Peretz knows he has to do something dramatic before the primary to put himself back in the picture. The problem is that any such move is likely to look like an obvious and desperate pre-election ploy - in which case, it is liable to backfire.