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Israel's Labor Party slow to recover Internal problems widen as Barak seeks to challenge Peres for leadership


JERUSALEM -- Four months after its defeat in national elections, Israel's Labor Party appears to be neither humbled nor healing itself.

Indeed, its internal rifts widened last week when former Foreign Minister Ehud Barak announced that he will seek the party leadership in June and its nomination for prime minister in 2000, whether former Prime Minister Shimon Peres steps down or not.

Peres, who has been hanging on as party chief despite his defeat by the Likud bloc's Benjamin Netanyahu in May, has let it be known that he was upset by Barak's announcement. Peres helped bring Barak from the army into the Labor government 15 months ago.

Barak acknowledged that he was a political newcomer but said his close work with five prime ministers in a 35-year career in the armed forces made him the best candidate to run the party and Israel. "I am confident that I can lead the party back to power," he told foreign journalists last week.

His main challenger, Haim Ramon, was less than gracious about the announcement, sniping that "only a political novice and rank amateur can so pompously declare that only he can save the party."

Barak and Ramon have been bickering at least since the election campaign, when Barak was in charge of Peres' bid for prime minister and Ramon ran the parliamentary race. While both failed, Ramon is blamed widely for the stunning losses, including 10 seats, or nearly a quarter of the Labor faction in Parliament.

Labor leaders, however, apparently still have not come to terms with the defeat. A 400-page party report, due out this week but already leaked to Israeli television, is said to acknowledge the exodus of Russian immigrant voters and the high turnout of religious voters for Likud in the results.

But the report suggests the narrow defeat could have resulted from an insufficient number of poll watchers -- in another word, fraud -- more than from any error by the party.

Barak tried to turn attention away from Labor's infighting by lashing out at Prime Minister Netanyahu, who he said was moving "very slowly and clumsily" in peacemaking and should have shaken Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's hand sooner "without losing the mutual confidence gained under the previous government."

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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