Labor aims for at least 20 seats on coattails of Gaza campaign
'We are competing for the leadership of this country and I for its premiership,' says buoyant Barak.
By SHELLY PAZ
You are forgiven if the names Moshe Samia, Yosef Sulimani, Arik Hadad or Avi Hizkiyahu don't exactly ring a bell, but you might want to start keeping them in mind.
They occupy slots 20 to 23 on Labor's Knesset list, and are starting to believe that Operation Cast Lead has boosted party chairman Defense Minister Ehud Barak's popularity to such a degree that they have a fighting chance to get into the Knesset.
Samia, from Netanya, won the Sharon District slot on the list, Sulimani; the vice-mayor of Kiryat Malachi, represents the South and Negev District; Hadad, who chairs the Kiryat Ekron Local Council, represents the Central District, and Hizkiyahu won the Tel Aviv slot.
Less than two months ago polls were predicting that Labor was going to collapse from 19 seats in the current Knesset to single digits in the next parliament. Now the pollsters are giving Labor at least 16 mandates.
"We are competing for the leadership of this country and I for its premiership," Barak told his party members Monday, at the beginning of Labor's faction meeting in the Knesset.
"At first we said we were working to get MK Yoram Marciano [No. 17 on the list] in the [next] Knesset, then we said we were working to promise Moshe Samia [No. 20] would be in the Knesset, and now I am saying that we are working to have Sulimani [No. 21] in the next Knesset," Barak added.
Clearly inspired by the results of the military operation in the Gaza Strip, Barak told the MKs that Labor will be back in the saddle "if we will work seriously during the next two weeks and one day we have left."
Labor Party MKs, campaigners and advisers are certainly more optimistic now, after their chairman managed to erase some of the party's tired, gray image.
Six weeks ago they spoke outright about the need to sit in the opposition so that the party could be rehabilitated, and Barak even admitted that he wasn't popular enough to be Israel's next prime minister.
Today they estimate Labor will get between 18 and 21 seats, depending on who you ask.
Even the more left-leaning MKs say that now it is legitimate again to speak about joining a unity government led by the Likud and its chairman, Binyamin Netanyahu.
"It's a different situation now. If Labor gets 18-20 seats, it has a mandate to consider joining the government rather than sitting in the opposition," former Ha'aretz journalist Daniel Ben-Simon, No. 11 on Labor's list, said on Monday.
"I feel the change when I meet people on the street. They smile at me, slap me on my shoulder and say that we did it, we restored Israel's deterrent force and pride," Ben-Simon added.
Marciano, whose spot in the next Knesset seemed unrealistic before the Gaza operation, felt confident enough to advise Barak on Monday to "go out and meet the people. [President Shimon] Peres gets everywhere at age 90; you can go and be everywhere too." Peres is actually 85.
Marciano criticized Labor's decision to leave the "dirty" election fighting to Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu.
"If you leave them to play alone they will claim that you are irrelevant," Marciano said.
But Labor's "At the Moment of Truth" campaign launched last week, in which Barak is seen looking the voter straight in the eye as Livni looks up and Netanyahu who looks aside, is indicative of the party's rising confidence, Barak aides say.
"This is an unprecedented campaign, with one of the contenders giving the stage to his competitors, but it was meant to make a point - that out of the three, Barak is the most competent to be the next prime minister, both from an economic and security perspective," one of Barak's close advisers said.
He admitted that the members of the party were experiencing a burst of optimism, feeling that the military operation had put them back in the game, and added that Livni and Kadima had made missteps during the Gaza offensive and would pay for these mistakes by losing votes to Labor.
"This is exactly the time to act on it," he added.
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