He Owes It All to Peretz

It had been his fondest fantasy during all those years when Ehud Barak was alone, exiled and hated in airport VIP lounges. That on the day he announced his return to politics, his biggest detractors would be the ones singing his praises, saying, "He's the man" - or, at least, not cursing him.

And it all came true yesterday. Like a well-rehearsed warm-up band, they went on the air: Shimon Sheves and Uzi Baram and Moshe Shahal, each in turn and in his own style (Baram was more reserved; Avraham Burg had already made his recommendation in the press), made way for Barak.

Neither his unique personal qualities nor the "change" he has undergone has created this wonder. Amir Peretz's short career at the Defense Ministry and as Labor Party chair made these people esteem Barak anew. And the former prime minister owes it all to Peretz, who has no one to complain to but himself: He had an opportunity, indeed more than one, to bring Barak into the government and to forge an alliance with him - and with Ami Ayalon - but his suspicions, fears and pride led him down another path.

Today, Peretz sees in the polls how Barak and Ayalon are conquering public opinion as he drops further and further down. Barak decided to announce his comeback yesterday, in light of recent polls that show that he and Ayalon are tied in this race. For someone who has not announced his candidacy, that's not bad. Barak thinks that he can only go up from here: He has more experience than Ayalon in conducting campaigns; he has a more impressive defense resume than Ayalon (chief of staff and prime minister vs. admiral and Shin Bet security service chief); and he hopes to appear more qualified to run the defense establishment than a navy man, since it has already been proved, for example, that an air force man - no matter how brilliant - cannot be chief of staff.

Barak's letter to Labor Party secretary general Eitan Cabel is reminiscent of a Swiss watch. It has all the necessary elements: humility, lack of pretension, remorse for poor judgment and acceptance of responsibility. A real 2007-model Ehud.

In essence, the man hasn't changed, but his style has softened. He's been reading and listening to preaching and scoldings for six years. From fourth-rate political activists, reporters and senior politicians alike. Some of what they've said seems to have sunk in. Barak knows he cannot afford to lose this time. This could be his last chance.

Slowly, most senior Labor members are gathering around him, but he must bring some new faces along as well. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Shalom Simhon's supporters will vote on May 28 for the candidate who they think is best qualified for the defense portfolio. That's why Peretz has no chance. Even if he signs up 20,000 supporters - those people have sons and brothers in the army and they want someone in the Defense Ministry who can read maps and knows when he's being hoodwinked.

Judging from Ayalon's interviews yesterday, he's stressed out. He has not conducted any campaign yet, he missed the chance to position himself as the leading candidate in Barak's absence, and he didn't utilize the momentum nor fully exploit Avishay Braverman's hooking up with him. Instead of holding a press conference or a huge joint convention of supporters, the pair chose to announce their political marriage in a beeper message that got lost in the clash of trumpets and cymbals that accompanied Barak's arrival on the scene.