Rabin Victory in Labor Primary Means Tougher Challenge for Likud

Yitzhak Rabin’s election last week as chairman of the Labor Party means the Likud will have a much tougher battle than expected in the campaign leading up to the June 23 Knesset elections.

Likud insiders admit privately that the unseating of dovish Shimon Peres as Labor’s candidate for prime minister by the hawkish Rabin has made the voters’ choice less clear-cut.

Some pundits already predict that regardless of the precise election results, Israel’s two major parties will wind up equal partners in another unity government.

They note that Shamir and Rabin worked well together in the unity governments that were in power from 1984 to 1990, when Rabin was defense minister. They also believe that Shamir would prefer a link-up with Labor to another coalition with the far-right parties, whose defections last month brought down his government.

But that does not necessarily mean Rabin, strongly backed by the kibbutz movement, has similar misgivings about an alliance with the left.

Some left-wing circles are confident he will choose to align Labor with its “natural” allies — the bloc formed by Mapam, the Center-Shinui Movement and the Citizens Rights Movement — plus the religious parties, rather than reconstitute its “unnatural” accord with Likud.

But such speculation is premature. With elections four months away, Labor and Likud must first put together the party slates they will submit to the voters.

Labor, which introduced a U.S.-style primary election to choose its leader on Feb. 19, will continue to rely on its 151,000 registered members all over the country to decide who gets on the Knesset list and in what position.

It plans to hold its “second primary” at the end of March, which gives Labor politicians ample time to jockey for position.

LEVY AND SHARON COMPETING

Likud is relying on its 3,500-member Central Committee, which re-elected Shamir on Feb. 20, to assemble its election slate. That will be done in two phases, starting this week.

On Thursday, the Central Committee will select a panel of 50 from among 130-odd candidates who want to run for a Knesset seat.

The committee will meet again a week later to arrange the 50 into groups of seven in ascending order. The nearer the group is to the top of the list, the better the chance its members will get elected.

A major battle is shaping up between Foreign Minister David Levy and Housing Minister Ariel Sharon for the top slot in the first group of seven. The winner would be Likud’s No. 2 man, second only to the prime minister in the party’s hierarchy.

Levy, a moderate, and Sharon, an outspoken hawk, were Shamir’s only challengers in the contest for party leadership.

Shamir beat them handily, garnering 46 percent of the Central Committee’s support to 31 percent for Levy and 22 percent for Sharon.

Shamir backers conceded the prime minister would have looked better had he won a majority rather than a plurality. Nevertheless, his challengers came nowhere near unseating him.

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