Trouble for Netanyahu

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TEL AVIV, Israel: Labor has a new point man. Early projections indicate that Ehud Barak is the runaway winner in Labor's primary election over outspoken dove Yossi Beilin and two others. Barak, 55, is a charismatic former military chief whose career and politics closely resemble those of the late Yitzhak Rabin. Much like Rabin in his own 1992 primary against Shimon Peres, Barak ran less on policy than on the promise that he alone could unseat Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister and return Labor to power. His party has long shared Barak's optimism. In April, at the height of Netanyahu's influence-trading scandal, party leaders deliberately muted their attacks until the day Barak, seen as a better candidate than Peres, could be elected as Labor leader. Barak's first task will be to find the cracks in Netanyahus constituency and position himself for the next general election, which is scheduled for 2000 but could be called as soon as Labor can secure a majority vote in the Knesset. One way to do that could be recruiting one of his primary opponents, former ambassador to Spain Shlomo Ben-Ami, who claims to have support among the Sephardim, or Middle Eastern Jews, who have traditionally leaned toward Likud. Considering Netanyahu's hair's-width victory over Peres in 1996 and the Prime Minister's damaged reputation among Israel's moderates, a few such inroads may be all Barak needs.