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Peres, Rabin enter ring for last time Israelis contesting Labor's leadership


JERUSALEM -- Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, former prime ministers of Israel and bitter rivals of long standing, are on the campaign trail to try to rescue their reputations and their party. One more time.

Each man is advertising himself as the best hope for leading the Labor Party out of the wilderness and back to power. They have done this before, many times in fact -- and therein lies their problem and the problem for a political movement fallen on hard times.

Mr. Peres and Mr. Rabin, both 69, are the last direct political descendants of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, and the heirs of the center-left political movement that did more than any other to create the modern state of Israel.

They have succeeded at almost everything they have tried, except politics. The Labor Party has been the one to suffer.

Mr. Peres has run for prime minister four times and lost three times. Mr. Rabin, after scandal forced him to resign as prime minister in 1976, has repeatedly challenged Mr. Peres for party leadership without success. In the mean time, the right-wing Likud has replaced Labor as the party that sees control of the government as almost a natural right.

To their detractors, Mr. Peres and Mr. Rabin are once-inspiring actors who now refuse to acknowledge the boos of the crowd. They have battled each other as fiercely as they have fought the real opposition -- the Likud led today by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

While Mr. Peres and Mr. Rabin were nurturing their rivalry, Labor changed in status from a virtually unchallenged No. 1 to a progressively weaker No. 2. Under a variety of names, Labor controlled the government for 29 years, from 1948 to 1977. In the time since, the Likud has filled the post of prime minister for 13 years, Labor for only two.

The Peres-Rabin rivalry is probably within a few days of coming to an end, as is a chapter in the country's history. In a process that is to begin tomorrow, Labor's 150,000 members are to vote by secret ballot to choose the person to lead the party in national elections scheduled for June.

It is almost certainly the last direct contest between Mr. Peres and Mr. Rabin before age forces them to retire. While four people are competing for the leadership post, party officials are convinced the winner will be either Mr. Peres or Mr. Rabin -- and that the career of the loser will be over.

"We are a young country with a habit of having old leadership," said Moshe Shahal, a Labor member of the Knesset who abandoned plans to compete against the old guard. "I've thought we should tell both gentlemen that it was time to quit, that you have to give an opportunity to the younger generation."

Party activists have rarely dared to complain directly to Mr. Peres or Mr. Rabin. Despite a long series of demoralizing defeats at the polls, Mr. Peres has remained head of the party and Mr. Rabin his only real challenger.

"It's very difficult to talk to them about these things," said Susan Hattis Rollef, editor of a Labor Party magazine. "They're both absolutely convinced that they are the best people for the job and to lead the country."

Even if neither man had entered politics, both could confidently claim to have played important and honorable roles in the history of the state.

Mr. Peres was the starring technocrat of the 1950s and 1960s. His public career began in 1947, at age 24, when Mr. Ben-Gurion put him in charge of arms procurement and manpower in advance of Israel's war of independence.

In the 1950s, Mr. Peres created the country's aircraft and electronics industries as the civilian director of the Ministry of Defense. He negotiated arms agreements that made Israel's army the best equipped in the region and obtained the technology for building Israel's nuclear reactor and to begin work on nuclear weapons.

He continued his rise under a succession of Labor prime ministers and in 1974 became minister of defense. When Prime Minister Golda Meir resigned later that year after the debacle of the 1973 war, Mr. Peres and Mr. Rabin competed to replace her. Mr. Peres was the loser.

Mr. Rabin's rise was no less meteoric and his accomplishments no less significant. As a young army officer, he played an important role during the fighting in 1948, and in 1964 was promoted to army chief of staff. He was responsible for much of the planning for Israel's startling successes in the 1967 Six-Day War, although he suffered a nervous collapse during the fighting.

Mr. Rabin abandoned the army for diplomacy and then for politics. He was Israel's ambassador to the United States for four years and then a minister in Mrs. Meir's Cabinet. He replaced her as prime minister in 1974 and remained head of the government until 1977.

A scandal forced him to resign. By the standards of today, it was a scandal over almost nothing: The press disclosed that Mr. Rabin's wife, Lea, had a bank account in the United States despite an Israeli law prohibiting it.

Mr. Rabin's supporters suspected that allies of Mr. Peres leaked the information about the bank accounts. Mr. Peres denied the accusation, but the damage was done. After Mr. Rabin's resignation, Mr. Peres led the party into elections in 1977 -- and to its first defeat.

The winners were Menachem Begin and his party of the right wing, the Likud. Their victory amounted to a peaceful revolution. While Labor had lavished money on collective farms and a local version of socialism, the Likud became the generous patron of Jewish settlements in the disputed territories captured in 1967. Labor prided itself on its European roots, while the Likud championed the underclass from Asia and North Africa.

Labor has never fully recovered. Except for the period from 1984 to 1986, when Mr. Peres served as prime minister in the uncomfortable power-sharing agreement that followed an indecisive election in 1984, the Likud led by Mr. Begin and then by Mr. Shamir has been the dominant party in national politics. And this is probably the last chance for Mr. Peres or Mr. Rabin to give Labor a victory.

The two men have contrasting personalities. Mr. Peres, silver-haired and usually smiling, is a gifted tactician. As prime minister, he rescued Israel's economy from hyperinflation and ended the country's disastrous war in Lebanon. At his best, he projects great warmth. He is an inspiring public speaker.

But he is burdened with a reputation as a schemer and a loser. His most damaging critic has been Mr. Rabin, who in an autobiography described his rival as "an indefatigable conniver," a phrase Mr. Peres' opponents have never let the public forget.

Mr. Rabin is dour, gruff and rarely eloquent. Mr. Peres is the intellectual, Mr. Rabin simple and direct. "He is not very sociable and doesn't like people very much," one of his supporters said. "But when he says something, he means it."

There are no major differences in what the two men say they would do as prime minister.

According to polls, Mr. Rabin as Labor leader could defeat the Likud while Mr. Peres might not.

Each man expresses confidence that he will win this week's party primary, the first of its kind. If none of the four contenders obtains more than 40 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held Feb. 26.

Mr. Rabin sounds buoyed by talk he might defeat Mr. Peres and even be able to take on the Likud. "Lately the color has returned to the Labor Party," he said.

"There is a feeling that this time we have a chance."

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