Israeli Defense Minister Wins Leadership of Moderate Labor Party

Israel's defense minister won the leadership of the fractured Labor Party, party officials said early Thursday, bolstering Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's governing coalition.

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer's victory followed a contentious four-month battle over primary results and a partial revote. His opponent, Parliament Speaker Avraham Burg, wanted his moderate party to quit Sharon's coalition, charging that by its presence, Labor has given harsh policies against the Palestinians a measure of justification.

However, Ben-Eliezer pledges to keep Labor in Israel's center-right government, at least for now, maintaining that his party has a restraining influence on Sharon and his hard-line allies.

Ben-Eliezer, 65, a career military officer who once served as West Bank military governor, was born in Iraq and immigrated to Israel as a teen-ager in 1950.

Ben-Eliezer pledged to his backers at party headquarters that he would work for unity. Party spokesman Danny Biran said the unofficial vote count showed Ben-Eliezer won the leadership post.

With Ben-Eliezer as defense minister and veteran peace pioneer Shimon Peres as foreign minister, the Labor Party holds key positions in Sharon's Cabinet but has only eight of the 28 votes around the Cabinet table.

Peres has threatened to resign several times over tough Israeli reprisals against Palestinian attacks and Sharon's unwillingness to pursue peace negotiations with the Palestinians until all violence stops.

Peres and Labor say peace talks are the only way to end 15 months of conflict that have taken 242 lives on the Israeli side and 850 on the Palestinian side.

Ben-Eliezer and Burg faced off in a primary election Sept. 4, but no victor was announced though Burg had a small lead after the votes were counted. The two sides charged each other with election fraud, and a new election was called for Wednesday in a few dozen voting stations.

However, the minority Druze community, which handed Burg his advantage in September, announced it would boycott the vote recasting, handing the victory to Ben-Eliezer.

Turnout was low on Wednesday. Burg conceded defeat even before it began. "Ben-Eliezer will be the chairman of the Labor Party," Burg told Army Radio, describing the revote as a "farce."