A split within the Labor Party can only be prevented if Ehud Barak agrees to hold a primary for the Labor leadership in 2010, a consensus of ministers and MKs in the party said in recent days.
The ministers and MKs said that such a move on Barak's part could potentially break up the four Labor rebels, prevent a decisive fifth MK from joining them and also pacify angry ministers Isaac Herzog and Avishay Braverman.
Currently, the party seems to be on a collision course after MK Daniel Ben-Simon set a three-month ultimatum Sunday for something to happen to unify Labor and persuade him against giving the four Labor rebels the fifth legislator needed to legally split the party and obtain public funding.
If the five MKs left, it would be hard for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to justify keeping Labor in his coalition with five portfolios and two deputy ministers for the remaining eight MKs. Even if Netanyahu kept Labor at such a hefty price, Herzog and Braverman would consider resigning due to their own difficulties with Barak.
Sources in the party said that Ben-Simon had been speaking to MKs about initiating a Labor race as a potential solution that could take place within three months, unlike progress in the peace process, which would also be a unifier but depended largely on the Palestinians. Ben-Simon declined to comment on the issue.
Labor sources revealed that even Barak's ally, National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, was working behind the scenes to initiate a primary in hopes it could unify the party's ranks. Ben-Eliezer's spokesman declined to confirm or deny this.
Barak succeeded four months ago in changing the party's constitution that required a leadership race within 14 months of a loss in a general election. The date for the primary was changed to just before the next general election, as is the case in Likud and Kadima.
But some Barak opponents believe he could be persuaded to agree to a primary if he realized it was the only way to keep his party together and allow him to remain defense minister. One possibility that has been discussed is for candidates like Herzog or Braverman to agree to Barak remaining defense minister, even if they won the race.
The third candidate expected to run against Barak, rebel MK Ophir Paz-Pines, opposed Labor joining the coalition and would remove the party immediately if elected chairman. Paz-Pines is seen as the most loyal to Labor among the four rebels and is expected to abandon the rebellion if a primary was initiated before a split.
Asked whether he would remain in the party and challenge Barak if a primary was initiated, Paz-Pines said: "That's a hypothetical question because Barak won't agree to move it up even by a day. It's science fiction. I decline to respond to questions that are so hypothetical that there is no chance of them happening."
Barak called Labor ministers before he left Washington on Tuesday to brief them about his meetings with American officials and to try to persuade them that progress was made in the peace process in Netanyahu's meeting with US President Barack Obama.
Sources close to Barak insisted that he would not give in to any threats from any MKs in his party. They said there was no possibility of advancing the primary.
"If there would be a primary in Labor, no matter when it would be, Barak would win easily," said Labor director-general Weizmann Shiri, a close Barak confidant. "These rebels would endanger the state for their own personal egos. Everything they do is completely personal. They should be more modest, because Barak has already forgotten more than they ever knew."