JERUSALEM, May 16 (JTA) — After a new membership drive that almost trebled its ranks, Israel’s Labor Party is gearing up for a crucial leadership race that will decide its ideological direction for the next few years — and, to a large extent, whether it can mount a serious challenge for national power. The outcome of the Labor leadership primary, set for June 28, also could determine how long Labor remains in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s coalition government. Most candidates are bent on leaving the government right after the planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank this summer, but incumbent party leader Shimon Peres, who at 81 is still the front-runner, is prepared to remain in the coalition indefinitely. Some Labor candidates are seeking a brief postponement of the vote to give them more time to garner support, but a delay of a few weeks or even months will not change the big picture: Labor and Likud, now in a coalition, soon will be working against each other in the run-up to national elections scheduled for November 2006 but widely expected to take place at least five months earlier. Even with Peres at the helm, Labor is unlikely to allow next year’s national budget to pass, triggering elections by June 2006 at the latest, many observers believe. The five Labor leadership candidates are former prime ministers Peres and Ehud Barak; Histadrut labor federation boss Amir Peretz; Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former defense minister and party chairman; and Matan Vilnai, a minister without portfolio and the army’s former deputy chief of staff. Peres, the most popular and experienced of the candidates, is least likely to make radical ideological or structural changes. Polls show that he fares the best of any candidate in a race against Sharon’s Likud, raising Labor’s projected total in the Knesset from its current 21 seats to at least 25. But Peres has a “loser” image when it comes to national elections — he has lost 4 times — and many of Labor’s younger generation suggest that it’s time for sweeping changes to make the party more relevant. Paradoxically, though, Peres still could win support from would-be reformers who might see him as a stopgap candidate for perhaps a year or two. After that one of them — perhaps Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz — could be ready to challenge him for the party leadership. Barak, 63, says Labor needs a tough leader able to stand up to Sharon, the Likud and the Arabs, and that he is that man. Over the past few months he has been trying to cultivate the strongman image, grabbing a microphone at a Labor Party meeting and more recently using tough, unparliamentary language to slam Sharon and his sons. But no one rouses as much antagonism as Barak inside Labor: Many party members resent him for his inability to admit mistakes, for his cavalier treatment of people close to him, and most of all, for his failure to deliver when he served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001. Peretz, 53, is deliberately targeting Barak. If the former prime minister is returned as Labor’s head, there would be little difference between Labor and Likud, says Peretz, arguing that Barak is as conservative on economic policy as Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud. For Labor to be relevant, the party must become a true social democratic party, caring for the poor and committed to a fairer distribution of wealth, Peretz says. Peretz claims that polls he has conducted show that the large Sephardi working class no longer sees Likud as its automatic political home. With Sephardi working-class credentials of his own, Peretz says he’s the man to remake Israeli politics by bringing masses of disgruntled Likudniks over to Labor. Vilnai, 62, son of a renowned Israeli geographer, has a reputation for straight talk and integrity. He was virtually alone in pushing for leadership primaries and was able to bring the party around to his position. Vilnai is a bluff, honest soldier in the Yitzhak Rabin mold, with the same heavy delivery as Rabin but without the late prime minister’s analytical brilliance. Vilnai has surveys showing that Labor under his leadership would win almost as many seats as under Peres. Ben-Eliezer, 69, is considered as hawkish as Barak on the peace process, with Vilnai in the center and Peres and Peretz more dovish. Trailing badly in early polls, Ben-Eliezer says he’ll nevertheless be the surprise in the leadership race. And well he might be: In the membership drive that closed Sunday, Ben-Eliezer brought in 36,000 new members, 8,000 more than Peretz and more than twice as many as Peres, Barak and Vilnai. Moreover, polls that show Peres in the lead, followed by Vilnai, Barak, Peretz and Ben-Eliezer, were conducted among the old party membership of 48,000. Critics say that only surveys of the 130,000 or so newly recruited members will give an accurate reflection of the balance of power in the party. Labor is due to hold a convention next week to approve the membership register, finalize election rules and decide whether or not to defer the June 28 election date. There’s one other key issue on the agenda: Barak’s people have challenged Peretz’s right to run, arguing that Peretz’s One Nation party, which recently returned to the Labor fold, has not yet fully merged with Labor. According to party rules, to win a leadership race a candidate must poll over 40 percent of the overall vote. With five candidates in the field, no one is likely to win so many votes on the first ballot, and the two leading candidates would face a run-off two weeks later. That could play into Peres’ hands: Peretz already has said that if he doesn’t make it to the second round, he will throw his weight behind Peres. Other unsuccessful candidates might do the same, because with Peres reinstalled they can count on getting another chance to contend for the leadership relatively soon — which might not be the case if one of the other, considerably younger, candidates wins. Of course, other alliances are possible. The bottom line, though, is that whoever is elected party leader could make a difference — first by engineering a Labor revival, then by influencing or even changing national priorities in the key period after the Gaza withdrawal.