Barak hints at March 2009 election

Labor officials say defense minister needs more time to repair his image before a general election.

Barak 224 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Barak 224 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Labor chairman Ehud Barak expressed support for holding the next general election in March 2009, in a conversation with Pensioner Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan at Sunday's cabinet meeting. Barak, who sits next to Eitan at the meetings, spoke to him about the Winograd Report that will be published on Wednesday and hinted at his preference to hold the next election at a time that would be more convenient for his party. Barak's associates downplayed his comments. "In the end, everything is mere speculation until he reads the report," Barak's spokesman said. "Barak will do what is right for Israel, and all the rest is conjecture, including what Eitan said that he said." Labor officials said Barak needed more time to repair his image before a general election. A March 2009 race, they said, would give him nearly two years in the Defense Ministry - about the same amount of time that former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu served in the Treasury in an effort to prove his professional credentials. A rally of Labor activists at the party's Tel Aviv headquarters calling on the party to remain in the government after Winograd's release only attracted a few dozen people. Nadia Hilu was the only MK who spoke at the event. Also Sunday, National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who is close to Barak, sent mixed messages when he met with a group of bereaved families and reserve soldiers. He said that if the report were "not fatal," Labor should not risk ending the peace process by leaving the government. But if the report were tough, Labor would demand that Kadima replace Olmert and would then try to set a date for elections with other factions. Shas chairman Eli Yishai, meanwhile, said in closed conversations that the next election would be held no earlier than November 2008 and no later than March 2009. The Shas Council of Torah Sages decided on Sunday to authorize Yishai to decide when the party would leave the coalition to protest concessions to the Palestinians. "The moment the [negotiating teams] start talking about Jerusalem, Shas will leave the government immediately," the ruling said. "The council has requested that the party chairman closely follow [the negotiations] and immediately update the council." Yishai purposely convened the council at a time when his party rival, Communications Minister Ariel Attias, was abroad. Shas officials said Attias has taken a more flexible stand about when the party should leave the government than Yishai, who wants to be seen as Jerusalem's defender in the cabinet. "The prime minister has promised me that there will be no freeze on building in Jerusalem and its suburbs," Yishai told reporters after the council meeting. "I will make sure that Shas does aid in dividing Jerusalem."