MK Ami Ayalon led Labor MKs over the weekend in blasting comments made by former prime minister Ehud Barak that the Second Lebanon War had shown there "was no substitute for experience."
It was the first time that Ayalon and Barak, both front-runners in the Labor Party leadership race, have publicly clashed.
Sources close to Ayalon said he was feeling the pressure from Barak, who has steadily risen in the polls over recent months.
According to a survey published Friday by the Dahaf Institute in Yediot Aharonot, Barak has closed passed Ayalon and now leads the race with 31 percent. Ayalon is a close second with 29%, while Defense Minister Amir Peretz, MK Ophir Paz-Pines, and MK Danny Yatom trail behind with 19%, 9% and 5%, respectively.
In a Dahaf poll conducted on March 5, Ayalon led with 28% of the vote, while Barak had 26%, Peretz received 19%, Paz-Pines 17% and Yatom 6%.
On Thursday, Barak told a gathering of pre-army recruits, "When the dust clouds settle after the Winograd Committee's conclusions [on the performance of the government and the military during the Second Lebanon War]... one lesson will be learned: In the state of Israel, there is no substitute for experience."
The former prime minister went on to say there was no doubt that Peretz, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz were talented individuals with good intentions but "what happened during the war proves that more experience is needed."
Barak did not mention Ayalon by name, but his comments were seen as an indirect stab at Ayalon, a relative newcomer to politics.
Ayalon responded on Friday afternoon, pointing out that Olmert had 30 years of political experience, as well as a defense minister and three former defense ministers as advisers.
"Everyone can see where all their experience has led us from the results of last summer's war," said Ayalon.
He called on Barak to show loyalty to the party, saying that he "should not return to his business ventures if he loses the primary," and promised he was not planning to leave the party himself if he would lose in the May 28 party election.
"The party should demand more than hollow leadership that does not represent a clear stance on issues and that prefers ambiguity over clarity. Only leadership that speaks the truth, that does not choose image over substance, can regain the public's trust," said Ayalon.
Other candidates for the Labor Party chairmanship joined Ayalon in attacking Barak, prompting Barak loyalists to declare his rivals were feeling threatened by his growing popularity and were establishing a united front against him.
Yatom told party supporters it "would be a mistake to vote for someone who avoids taking a stance regarding national issues," while Paz-Pines said "it is amazing that someone with such bad experience can brag about past failures as successes. The party must not compromise regarding leadership that has failed."
Peretz slammed Barak for strengthening Hizbullah by pulling "the IDF out of Lebanon in a unilateral retreat and without any agreement involving an international force" in 2000.
"I didn't see his experience prevent him from employing a policy of turning a blind eye in Lebanon. This practice, which started in Ehud Barak's days, is what led to us waking up one day to the reality of an armed Hizbullah sitting on Israel's doorstep in tunnels they had been digging for years," said Peretz.
Education Minister Yuli Tamir of Labor, a long-time supporter of Peretz, told Channel 2's Meet the Press she found any blame cast by Barak "hypocritical."
"How can the fault for this be laid on Peretz... The heart of the problem was the feeling given to the ministers that this would be a short operation, the goals of which could be achieved by the air force, with a very focused ground operation," said Tamir.
She also said Peretz's natural place was at the Finance Ministry, and that she would support a request by him to become finance minister.