JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak won the leadership of Israel’s Labor Party on Wednesday, putting him in an influential position to decide the fate of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his coalition government.
The left-of-centre Labor Party is the main partner of Olmert’s centrist Kadima party in the coalition.
Barak has called on Olmert to resign after an official report criticized the prime minister’s handling of a war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last year but has said he would not immediately bolt from the coalition.
Labor ministers also seem unwilling to risk their posts in a major coalition realignment or in an early election which opinion polls suggest would favor former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party.
Barak won 51.2 percent of the vote of Labor’s 103,000 members in the leadership run-off, while his challenger, former intelligence chief Ami Ayalonwith Ayalon, took 47.7 percent, official results showed.
The 65-year-old former army chief will replace outgoing Labor leader Amir Peretz, the current defense minister.
Barak stepped down as prime minister in 2001 after a Palestinian uprising erupted and peace talks collapsed. He has since had a successful business career.
“Today starts the long and arduous task ... to unify the state of Israel ... It is also the beginning of our mission to repair the people’s faith in its leaders,” Barak said in his victory speech.
He has signaled he may give Olmert breathing space, at least until the commission on the Lebanon war issues a final report due in August.
Barak is more popular among voters than Olmert, whose popularity has plummeted to single digits.
Labor will hold a key cabinet post in the coalition government, probably defense minister in place of Peretz, defeated in the first round.
Ayalon, a former head of the navy who went on to become the head of the Shin Bet internal security service until his retirement in 2000, said he would respect the result.
Labor held the leadership run-off because none of the original five candidates scored the required 40 percent in the first ballot on May 28.
Olmert faces a test of his leadership on Wednesday when parliament votes for a new head of state.
He has sponsored senior Kadima colleague Shimon Peres for the largely ceremonial presidency but the elder statesman faces a tough challenge from two other legislators in the secret ballot among parliament’s 120 members.
Peres was defeated by Moshe Katsav of Likud in a presidential vote in 2000 and a tight race is widely expected on Wednesday. Katsav stepped aside in January while denying accusations of rape and sexual harassment.