News Analysis: Barak finds himself laboring to control his own party

JERUSALEM — "Midsummer madness" was how Labor Party leader Ehud Barak this week dismissed signs of dissent in the senior ranks of his party.

"I know it's only June," he said, "but apparently some of our people are feeling the heat as though it were July or August already."

Barak, who often seeks to model himself on the late Yitzhak Rabin, went on to recall that the slain prime minister, too, faced sporadic outbreaks of unrest from within the ranks of his party.

"His response was: Go out into the field and work hard — then things will look different," Barak said.

But for all his brave front, Barak — like Rabin was before him — is plainly angry and hurt by the reports of rising dissatisfaction in Labor with his leadership.

Israeli newspapers in recent days pointed to such key Labor figures as Uzi Baram and Haim Ramon, both ministers in the previous Labor government, as being less than pleased with their leader.

Baram added fuel to the flames by saying on Army Radio that while he had worked hard to get Barak elected leader he did not know if he would do so again.

The chief source of frustration is Labor's lackluster showing in opinion polls.

With the members of the Netanyahu government torn over the course of the peace process, and the prime minister personally unpopular around the world, the opposition might well have hoped for better poll results.

At the start of the year Barak was well ahead of the premier — but now the polls show him neck and neck with Netanyahu.

Coupled with the fact that an incumbent has many opportunities to better his image and performance in the run-up to elections, slated for 2000, Barak's current showing in the polls can't inspire much confidence within his party.

Pundits and the public agree that Barak hasn't yet taken off.

Barak has been party leader for more than a year. Supporters in the party who preferred him, a former army chief of staff and decorated war hero, to the dovish Yossi Beilin are impatient to see the tide of public opinion turning in Labor's favor.

According to Israeli media reports this week, party discontents have begun seeking an alternative.

No name was mentioned, but savvy observers needed none: The present chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, is about to retire after three-and-a-half years in the top military slot — and the political community is abuzz with speculation that he, like many of his predecessors, is headed for politics.

Shahak is known to be far more of a moderate than Barak, who is an avid supporter of the Oslo process crafted by Rabin, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Beilin during the 1992-1996 Labor governments.

The tall, silver-haired and handsome Shahak, who has beaten leukemia, is said by pundits to be very popular.

A report in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz recently said that Roni Milo, the Likud mayor of Tel Aviv who is setting up a new centrist party, has already approached Shahak to join him.

According to some accounts, Milo is ready to hand the leadership of the new party — and the premier candidacy — to Shahak.

Perhaps it was this sort of speculation that prompted an unprecedented confrontation between Shahak and the prime minister at Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting.

Reporting to the ministers on IDF intelligence assessments of policy trends within the Palestinian Authority, Shahak was suddenly interrupted by Netanyahu.

"I'll deal with that," the premier said. "You stick to military affairs."

Shahak, as deputy chief and then as chief of staff, has been briefing the Cabinet for years. This was the first such incident.

"If you do not wish to hear my report, I'll report on matters you do wish to hear about," the chief of staff retorted, and switched to Lebanon.

IDF sources later voiced outrage at their chief's treatment by the prime minister.

Shahak's Cabinet exchange with the premier could hardly have consoled Barak — particularly if the incumbent Labor leader fears, as many here believe, that leading party figures may prevail upon Shahak to join the party with a view to leading it.

Meanwhile, Barak is cleaving to the strategic course he set when he assumed leadership: the hardening of Labor's position toward the interests of the religious parties coupled with a consistent pulling toward the center on peace policy.

Barak is leading a campaign for the enlistment in the army of fervently religious youths — a move that will all but ensure he and his party will get none of the votes of this growing constituency, but will likely increase support from secular voters.

At the same time, he always carefully articulates middle-of-the-road positions regarding negotiations with the Palestinians.

This represents a deliberate effort to woo voters away from Likud's moderate wing and from its more moderate coalition partners, the Third Way and Yisrael Ba'Aliyah.

Barak's immediate problem is not, however, the next elections nor Shahak's potential challenge.

The Labor leader is wrestling with a tough call: Should the opposition party promise that it will support Netanyahu if the premier submits a redeployment agreement to the Knesset?

Some in Labor insist the answer must be yes.

Their party, they say, cannot vote against a step forward in the peace process — even if it is a step taken by a Likud-led government and even if Labor believes that Likud isn't truly committed to peace.

Others, just as forcefully, warn against this.

They say it is not only legitimate but also morally right for Labor to link up with the hard-liners in the Knesset to bring Netanyahu down over a redeployment.