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Thursday, 8 February, 2001, 17:42 GMT
Barak's party stripped of power
Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak announces his decision to resign
By Richard Miron

In the wake of Ariel Sharon's election victory the recriminations and in-fighting have already begun within Ehud Barak's Labour Party.


The Labour Party - which is ironically the largest party in the Knesset - now appears as a weak and fractious grouping, stripped of much of its power

One of Mr Barak's main supporters, Eli Goldschmidt, who was instrumental in Mr Barak's campaign, has resigned from the party and the Knesset, condemning his political colleagues within Labour as "backstabbers".

Ehud Barak himself has announced his resignation, opening the way for a leadership battle within the party, and the potential candidates have already been jockeying for position.

Whoever does win faces a formidable task in unifying the party and convincing the Israeli electorate that its policies are still relevant.

Voters

Core constituencies who have in the past supported Labour either stayed away or voted for the right-wing candidate during this prime ministerial contest.

Shlomo Ben Ami
Mr Ben Ami is a leading negotiator
Israeli Arabs who have been a vital element in Labour's support turned their backs on the party on this occasion - a mere 25% of eligible Israeli Arab voters cast their ballots.

They blame Ehud Barak for the death of 13 members of their community, killed by Israeli security forces during violent demonstrations in support of the Palestinian uprising.

Russian immigrants who voted for Ehud Barak in the 1999 election supported Ariel Sharon this time around.

They perceive the Labour leader as weak, and too willing to reach make concessions to the Palestinians.

Divisions

Whoever takes over at the helm of the Labour Party is going to have a difficult time reconciling the demands of these differing groups.

Yossi Beilin
Mr Beilin has warned that he will leave the party
Leading figures within the Labour Party are divided about the best way ahead.

Some favour joining a national unity government under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, while others oppose the move.

The Labour Party is holding talks to discuss its possible participation in a Sharon-led government.

Labour's negotiating team is expected to be led by the veteran left-wing politician Shimon Peres. He is believed to favour a national unity government.

Shimon Peres is also likely to figure in any leadership contest for Labour, either lending his influence to his favoured candidate or even joining the race himself.

But at 77 years of age many consider him too old to lead the party.

Candidates

Haim Ramon, who was interior minister in the Barak administration, is another leading candidate for the leadership.

The former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres
Mr Peres favours a national unity government
He was perceived as a rival to Ehud Barak, and in recent months relations with the prime minister cooled.

Haim Ramon is a centrist within the Labour Party, and given his distant relationship with Mr Barak, he would not be tainted by the prime minister's political failures.

Shlomo Ben Ami - the public security minister and a leading member of the government's negotiating team with the Palestinians - has, by contrast, been damaged by his association with Ehud Barak.

Avraham Burg, the current Labour speaker of the Knesset is another leading candidate; popular with the public, he has often stated his intention to lead the party.

But he faces strong opposition among some of his colleagues who oppose his leadership.

As the Labour Party considers who should be its leader, it is also in danger of fragmenting.

Yossi Beilin - the dovish minister of justice within the Barak government - has warned that he will leave the party and take a number of parliamentary colleagues with him, if it decides to join a national unity government with Ariel Sharon.

Avraham Burg
Mr Burg is a leading candidate
The Labour Party - which is ironically the largest party in the Knesset - now appears as a weak and fractious grouping, stripped of much of its power.

The election has confirmed the rightward shift among the Israeli electorate, and the Labour Party will now likely embark of a period of damaging in-fighting as it decides upon who will lead it, and its political stance.

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