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Peres Takes the Presidency, Barak Makes a Comeback

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Call Ehud Barak at age 65 “the comeback kid” and Shimon Peres “Mr. President.”

The two former Israeli prime ministers picked up important victories on successive days.

Peres was elected Israel’s ninth president on Wednesday, the day after Barak won a Labor Party leadership election that likely will make him the next defense minister and potentially sets him up to again become premier.

Peres, 83, will assume the presidency, a largely ceremonial post, on July 15 for a seven-year term. The presidency will cap a six-decade career in which Peres has served in virtually every top civilian post in Israel. In 1993 he won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.

In parliamentary voting Wednesday, Peres defeated rival Knesset members Reuven Rivlin and Colette Avital.

Rivlin and Avital dropped out after the first round, having received 37 and 21 votes respectively. In the second round 86 Knesset members supported Peres, the only remaining candidate, and 23 opposed him.

“I have been in the Knesset for 48 years and not for one moment have I lost faith or hope in Israel,” Peres said in his acceptance speech. “What Israel has achieved in 60 years, no other country has been able to achieve. I hope I can represent our faith not because there are no problems but because we all want to overcome them.”

Barak, too, said he intended to address Israel’s many problems.

“Today begins the long and difficult task of unifying the State of Israel,” Barak told supporters after results showed he had beaten ex-admiral Ami Ayalon in the Labor runoff. Barak won 51.3 percent of the vote to 47.7 percent for Ayalon.

“It is also the beginning of our mission of healing the people’s faith in its leaders,” Barak said.

[photo EhudBarak04 align=left] Having emerged only months ago from a lucrative semi-retirement, Barak, is now widely expected to assume the defense portfolio from former Labor chief Amir Peretz.

That would lend much-needed military polish to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition government, which lost domestic support over the failures of last year’s war in Lebanon.

“I will dedicate all my energy and knowledge to bolstering the defense establishment and the armed forces, as well as restoring Israel’s deterrence,” said Barak, a former military chief.

Like Ayalon, Barak had called for Olmert’s resignation after a commission of inquiry rebuked the prime minister for his inexpert handling of the July-August offensive against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

Barak said that should Olmert stay on after the Winograd Commission’s final report is published in August, Labor could bolt the government in protest.

But most political pundits believe that ultimatum is insincere. Anyway, they say, the decision to leave the government would likely be overruled by the Labor Central Committee. Surveys suggest that as much as 80 percent of the center-left party’s rank-and-file wants to stay in the coalition under Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party. To quit would be to lump Labor with a political opposition led by its nemesis, the rightist Likud Party under Benjamim Netanyahu.

A good showing in the defense ministry would go a long way toward allayin! g many I sraelis’ misgivings about Barak. During his 18-month tenure as prime minister, from 1999 to 2001, Barak was involved in ultimately unsuccessful peace summits with the Palestinians and Syria. He also oversaw a whirlwind unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

Netanyahu, seeing a future rematch with the one who toppled him as prime minister in 1999, has long argued that Barak’s deadline diplomacy led directly to the Palestinian violence that erupted in 2000 as well as deadly enhancement of Hezbollah’s capabilities.

Most Israelis agreed: Ariel Sharon of Likud forced Barak out of office in a 2001 landslide election.

Some Israeli leftists also resent Barak’s six-year hiatus from politics, during which he divorced his telegenic wife, Nava, and reportedly made millions of dollars as a corporate consultant abroad.

“There are a few things that Ehud Barak should remember,” Ma’ariv’s Ben Caspit wrote. “First, he is still the most hated politician in the country. Second, he will have to find a way to join the Olmert government without being in it. Third, his real campaign begins only now. Fourth, the burden of proof on his shoulders is still very heavy.

“His real campaign awaits him farther up the road, where Benjamin Netanyahu waits, who himself has learned quite a few lessons and is conducting himself in an exemplary fashion.”

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