JERUSALEM, Jan. 8 (JTA) — Ehud Barak’s return to political life has thrown the race for Labor Party leadership — and the post of defense minister that comes with it — wide open. Incumbent Amir Peretz is widely perceived to have failed dismally at both jobs. The Israel Defense Force’s relatively poor showing in the summer’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, along with a string of inept party and political decisions by Peretz, created near perfect conditions for Barak’s comeback. Still, the former prime minister will not have everything his way and will face several strong candidates in the race for party leadership. Frontrunner Ami Ayalon, a former navy commander and Shin Bet Security Services chief, has built an impressive base of grassroots support; the young, charismatic Ophir Pines-Paz, a former Cabinet minister, is popular among the party rank and file; Dani Yatom brings the gravitas of a former Mossad chief; and, of course, there is Peretz himself, who less than a year ago was the party’s great new hope and now is fighting for his political life. The outcome of the race, scheduled for May 28, is especially relevant given the current leadership vacuum in Israel as a whole. Ayalon seems to be in the lead, followed by Barak and Pines-Paz running third. A weekend poll in the Yediot Achronot newspaper showed Ayalon with 29 percent, Barak 24 percent, Pines-Paz 22 percent, Peretz 18 percent and Yatom 3 percent of registered party members’ votes. According to Labor Party rules, if no candidate polls at least 40 percent in the first ballot, a runoff is held between the two top vote-getters. In that case, the Yediot poll puts Ayalon at 52 percent and Barak at 41 percent — but that’s without endorsements from beaten candidates, which could go either way. Barak’s new leadership challenge comes six years after the end of his controversial 21-month tenure as prime minister, which began with great expectations for a comprehensive Middle East peace and ended with the violence of the Palestinian intifada and Barak’s landslide electoral defeat. Barak was widely criticized at the time for his arrogance, inability to take advice and cavalier treatment of close colleagues. His comeback has been carefully crafted to overcome the baggage of past failures. The first step was to present a “new Barak” — more mellow, less arrogant, more attentive to others. In a letter to the party Sunday announcing his decision to run for leadership, Barak apologized for past mistakes. “It is possible that I became prime minister too soon,” he wrote. “I made many mistakes, and my lack of experience hurt me. Today I know that there are no shortcuts, certainly not in public and political life, and that leadership is a shared burden, not a solo mission.” Without spelling it out, the letter makes plain that Barak is far more experienced than any of his current Labor rivals. To drive home the point, his campaign team draws a parallel with Yitzhak Rabin, a failed prime minister in his first term but a highly successful one when he was more mature. Barak’s second step was to get endorsements from some of his most bitter party foes. That would send the message that he had indeed changed. “The fact that people like Avrum Burg, Uzi Baram, Moshe Shachal and Shimon Sheves, in whose presence, not so long ago, you couldn’t mention Barak’s name without risking your life, are going around the media channels drumming up support for him, shows that someone here did a good job,” political analyst Sima Kadmon wrote in Yediot Achronot. More important, Barak has been able to mobilize support from current major players like party strongman Benjamin Ben Eliezer, the highly respected Isaac Herzog and Shalom Simchon, who can deliver votes from moshavim. Barak also is trying to set the agenda, depicting the Labor primaries as primarily a vote for the next defense minister. His campaign team argues that even if Barak is elected leader and takes the defense portfolio, there will be new primaries six months before a national election — meaning, theoretically, that someone else could replace him as Labor’s candidate for prime minister. Ayalon maintains that the party should elect the man most likely to bring it back to power now. He claims to have the clearest vision of what Israel should be doing on the core issues, and to be the one who can best unify the people. He also argues that he could do a better job of rebuilding the army, since that is precisely what he did as head of the Shin Bet after its demoralizing failure to prevent the Rabin assassination in 1995. But although Ayalon has been working hard, crisscrossing the country, the only Knesset member to support him so far is economics professor Avishai Braverman, and some pundits think his campaign may have peaked too early. Pines-Paz, 45, is probably still too young to win the top job, but he could well be the kingmaker, as his support after the first ballot could be crucial in deciding the final outcome. Yatom, despite his past record, will likely pull out before the ballot and support Barak, whom he once served as strategic adviser. The big question is how much fight Peretz has left in him. He may try to gain votes by coming out with a new peace initiative, and may aim to find as many supportive new members to join the party before the membership drive closes Jan. 31. But neither move is likely to save him. What makes the Labor race even more intriguing is the fact that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is also under great pressure as leader. A strong showing as party boss and defense minister by Barak or Ayalon would position that candidate well in the running for prime minister. The key to the political outcome could be in the soon-to-be-released findings of the Winograd Commission, which is investigating the Lebanon war. Clearly the commission could hurt Olmert and Peretz over their conduct of the war. But it also could come down hard on Barak for pulling out of Lebanon in May 2000 without an agreement, sowing the seeds of the Hezbollah problem that the army had to contend with last summer.