A Bloody Battlefront

If Barak makes it to the second round in Labor's primaries, he will likely face an Ayalon-Peretz alliance - with Ayalon bringing the spirit and security background, and Peretz bringing the masses and loyal party soldiers, who hate the former prime minister.

Ehud Barak has contracted laryngitis four times since he launched his campaign for Labor Party chairman; four times his voice has become so hoarse from all the speeches and lectures that it has failed him entirely. But even after all this suffering, the former prime minister is still being accused of not opening his mouth.

Not a day has passed since January without Barak meeting with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of party members at private homes and conferences. Yet despite all that effort, he is still disparagingly referred to as "the silent candidate."

This week, in a meeting with party activists in Tel Aviv, someone once again asked Barak: Tell us, why don't we hear you in the media? Barak got angry. Something of the old Barak, the short-tempered one, came out. He asked his questioner: Why do I have to follow these rules? Why do I have to be part of this sea of verbiage? Because the media have decided it should be this way? Or because a certain candidate changes his positions every two days? I won't give in to this code. I announced at the beginning that during the campaign I would speak only to party members, and that's what I did, until my voice was gone. There wasn't a single party member who wanted to hear me and didn't. But I'm not one of those who "dance with stars." I'm not ingratiating myself with the public in order to get supportive text messages.

During his appearances in public, Barak asks the crowd: What kind of leadership do you want? In the last round, he says, I saw Amir Peretz's campaign, decided that I wouldn't be part of it, and paid a price. I was boycotted completely. But after Peretz was appointed defense minister, no one heard me criticize him as a person. And look at the other candidates: When Peretz returned to the Labor Party, some of the members welcomed him, others opposed him, some ran around the country and sang his praises - only to say, a year later, that they didn't know him well enough. Before he was elected, they supported him. When he didn't appoint them ministers, they rebelled against him. When they thought he would come out looking good after the war, they conformed, and today they're running against him.

So tell me, Barak asks again, what kind of leadership do you want?

The people in the crowd want to know: What will you do if you're elected chair, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert isn't replaced and the elections aren't moved up: Will you remain outside the government? What will you do if the security situation deteriorates? Will you allow the Defense Ministry to be without a minister? Barak tells them: We'll deal with it all when it happens. I don't have to jump the gun now with all the answers. There's no doubt, he says with more than a hint of what he thinks the future holds, that the security situation is more complex and multifaceted than it appears to the public.

About a week ago, Barak met up with his friend, fellow Laborite Avraham "Beiga" Shochat, at a private event. "You have to give a leadership speech before the primaries," Shochat told him. "Look at them in France, [Nicolas] Sarkozy and Segolene Royal, how they got their voters excited." Barak took the suggestion seriously. Yesterday he was slated to appear before his supporters on the lawn of Labor Party headquarters to show a video clip of images from his past - the days when he would meet with Bill Clinton, King Hussein and Vladimir Putin, without Olmert or Shimon Peres. The clip opens with a shot of the wing of the hijacked Sabena airplane Barak helped free in 1972, but the picture is not complete: Danny Yatom has been cut out. The few percentage points Yatom gets in the race could yet steal the victory from Barak.

Samson without tresses

Whether he wins or loses, Barak is the story of this primaries race. He is the most serious candidate, as well as the most experienced and the most sophisticated. He is also the candidate carrying the heaviest burden - a cumulative one that includes the 18 months of his prime-ministerial term and the four years during which he drifted outside the party in ostentatious luxury, as a representative of the upper classes. The war, and Barak's successful non-campaign, have helped him peel away a significant amount of the anger toward him, although islands of hostility and suspicion remain. Barak is now trying to navigate between those islands in order to win in the first round of voting, which takes place Monday. He needs another 2,500 to 3,000 votes to win, depending on which poll you look at.

If Barak makes it to the second round against former Shin Bet security services chief Ami Ayalon, he will apparently find himself facing an Ayalon-Peretz alliance - with Ayalon bringing the spirit, the refreshing aroma and the security background, and Peretz bringing the masses and the loyal party soldiers, who hate Barak. This is a bloody battlefront, and the polls predict a loss for Barak. But a second round is an entirely new story, with new rules of the game: A Peretz endorsement of Ayalon could lose Ayalon his current supporters - all the Ashkenazi veteran members of Mapai (the forerunner to Labor), who can't stand Peretz and what he represents.

In the first round, the fight is between Barak and Ayalon. The polls show Peretz falling apart: Without the Histadrut labor federation and the power to threaten and reward, without the media that danced around him during the last primaries, and the social organizations that supported him then - he is like Samson shorn of his tresses. But those who understand something about politics, like Kadima MK Haim Ramon, for instance, think the polls are seriously mistaken about Peretz, that his voters aren't easy to figure out, and that his chances of getting to the second round and facing off against Barak are better than those of Ayalon.

In such a situation, Peretz's victory will also be his downfall. In a head-to-head fight against Barak, the former prime minister - with the support of Ayalon, Danny Yatom and Ophir Pines-Paz - will crush Peretz. Perhaps it's better for Peretz to come in third, a respectable third, with some 20 percent of the votes, and to become the kingmaker in the second round. Peretz is pondering this issue. What's better for me, he asks his friends, as though it depends on him.

Mercy vote

In the last Labor Party primaries, former MK Uzi Baram was one of Peretz's leading supporters: Baram served as an adviser and a member of Peretz's staff. Not any longer. Baram is yet another one of those who have been disappointed by Peretz. The two still speak sometimes, but Baram also speaks to Barak. A few months ago, after the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Baram and Barak held a conciliatory meeting and Barak heaped praise on Baram, the former Peretz adviser rushed to clarify that he was still not a Barak supporter and that he did not plan to vote for him. This week, though, Baram sounded a little different. "On Monday I'm liable to vote for Barak," he said, "even though I still don't support him."

Excuse me?

Baram: "I'll vote for him because he may be the most suitable, but I don't support him in the sense that I will work for him. On the other hand, I may vote for Peretz."

Excuse me?

"Because I was with him, and it's a shame about him. I see his difficult situation, and maybe I'll decide to give him another vote."

Baram said that after the Yedioth story about his meeting with Barak, he encountered bitter reactions everywhere he went. But the hatred toward Barak has faded significantly since then, he said, adding, "I barely get any harsh responses."

Baram is not the only one who may feel compelled to give Peretz a mercy vote. MK Shelly Yachimovich, who was Peretz's No. 1 supporter in the 2005 primaries, has yet to say which candidate she'll be voting for. Peretz comes closest to her ideological convictions, but that's a completely theoretical issue; what good did ideology do her last time? If Yachimovich decides to vote for him Monday, she'll be doing so with a trembling hand and a great deal of ambivalence.

Those who have met Peretz in the last few weeks discovered a liberated man, someone at peace with himself. It's as though a millstone was removed from his neck the moment he announced that he wouldn't remain in the Defense Ministry after the primaries. He knows that these are his final days as party chairman, that the die has been cast. In a strange way, this makes it easier for him. He's like a boy who feels relieved after failing a test; he no longer feels obligated to discuss security-related matters, which never enthralled him anyway. He talks politics.

Peretz will stay in the Defense Ministry until his replacement arrives, which could take some time. After the primaries, the Labor Party is liable to get entangled in internal complications; both Ayalon and Barak can be expected to wait outside the government, at least for a limited amount of time. If Ayalon becomes chairman and tries to get the Labor ministers to pull out of the government, they're liable to hole up in their jobs and fire in all directions. In November 2005, Peretz made them sign resignation letters, against their will, that he had printed up for them; to this day they haven't fully recovered from that trauma.

It's not easy for any minister, for any party, to leave the government. And for the Labor Party and its ministers it will be 10 times harder. That's how it has always been. As chairman, Ayalon would need all the combat experience he acquired in the Shayetet 13 (naval commando) unit and the Shin Bet, both offensive and defensive, to defuse the Laborites' explosive resentment. He will have an opposition faction and an opposition central committee, and will have to maneuver between the two.

Barak, at least, is familiar with these hurdles, from having served as party chairman between 1997 and 2001. At the time, he suffered all the tribulations: as a party chairman in the opposition who people said "wasn't taking off," and as a prime minister who started off well and ended with a reverberating crash. He was there, people did things to him - he was scorched, toughened and strengthened.

Most of the time, these primaries were boring and incident-free. Barak dictated their character and pace. From the moment he decided not to participate in the game, the detonator was defused. The Ayalon camp tried to harass him every once in a while, as when the former deputy chief of the Mossad espionage agency, Ayalon supporter Amiram Levin, said in an interview that Barak was mentally ill. But all these efforts shattered on the rocks of the sphinx's silence.

The days following the vote will be a lot more interesting. They will have a dramatic influence on the stability of the government, the fate of the prime minister and, of course, the face of the Labor Party. And we must remember that with Labor, every race that comes to an end is only the beginning of the next race.