Seven Lean Years

No result from the battered Labor Party ballot boxes tonight will knock people off their seats. Either Ehud Barak or Ami Ayalon will win - or there will be a second round between them, or between one of them and Amir Peretz. With last week's opinion polls predicting that Peretz will garner between 7 and 20 percent of the vote, and Ayalon between 27 percent to 37 percent, it is clear that pollsters are faced with many mysteries in these primaries: the clan votes of the Druze and the Arabs, the vengefulness of Peretz's former supporters, the organizational ability of Ayalon as opposed to that of Barak, who makes use of veteran grass-roots people like Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Shalom Simhon, and so on.

If Peretz reaches a second round, a crushing defeat awaits him against Barak or Ayalon. n Peretz's campaign focused on Barak's weaknesses. He did not shrink from half-truths and demagoguery. The words "Akirov Tower" - Barak's elitist, high-rise residence - became an inseparable part of Peretz's campaign. However, in the Labor Party such trappings do not help a person who seeks to lead.

Barak avoided scoring goals in his own campaign. But as in soccer, a team that focuses exclusively on defense finds itself in overtime and facing penalty shots - a situation in which everything is left to chance. That is what happened to Barak when the Winograd Committee report was released By the time he responded, it was too late and too complicated. And yet, Barak was able to defuse most of the hate leveled at him.

Ayalon is ending the race as he began it: with Avishay Braverman at his side. Ayalon's lack of experience, which he prefers to call "lack of caution," tripped him up again and again. Labor Party members like him, but how many of them will come out to vote for him today? Ayalon represents the desire for change, for someone fresh and new, but except for Braverman, none of the members of Labor's Knesset faction is behind him. They consider him to be someone who just floated up from the depths of the sea - a bit strange and unexpected, someone to be wary of and reined in.

If Ayalon wins, as most of the polls predict, he will form an alliance with Peretz and Barak because he knows there is no life for him without them.

The real national drama will begin only after the new chairman is elected. The leaders, Barak and Ayalon, will be hobbled to some extent by their pledges not to join the cabinet - "Unless Olmert is replaced," as Ayalon says, or if early elections are to be planned, as Barak wants. In any event, it seems that the primaries will lead to elections, even if they take place in another year. Meanwhile, the two "Ehuds" - Barak and Olmert - met yesterday at the wedding of Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik's son. The meeting was said to have been friendly. But then again, at a wedding everyone looks jovial.

Labor has had six leaders since the beginning of the millennium: In 2000 it was Barak. Then, with dizzying speed, it was Shimon Peres. Then there was Avraham Burg for 48 hours, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer for over a year, Amram Mitzna for less than a year, and now Peretz, concluding 18 months at the helm.

Today, or at the latest in two weeks' time, a new leader will be chosen; perhaps an new-old leader. Seven leaders in seven years. Labor has been restless since Yitzhak Rabin's assassination and Peres' defeat. It seeks, and yet cannot find, the person who will bring it back to its glory days.