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Dueling Peace Visionaries Vie For Chance at Israel's Helm

Buzz-cut general vs. tweedy professor in race to unseat Netanyahu

Ehud Barak is a straight-talking former general with buzz-cut hair and a sterling reputation - something like an Israeli Colin Powell.

His opponent in the race for the leadership of Israel's opposition Labor Party is Yossi Beilin, a tweedy academic who is articulate yet sometimes bland.

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The bespectacled Mr. Beilin even jokes that the contest is a choice between "a macho and a nerd."

That choice has taken on renewed importance this week, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets more enmeshed in an emerging political scandal.

If indictments are made against Mr. Netanyahu or any Cabinet ministers, some observers think the government may fall, forcing early elections - and putting the spotlight on the two men vying to head the Labor Party.

The differences between Beilin and Barak are striking. As an architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, the idealistic Beilin was among the first Israelis to reach across the Jewish-Palestinian divide and seek compromise.

Barak sees peace as a strategic necessity. Israel, he reasons, can't defend itself against increasing military sophistication of a hostile Arab world.

But in the end, both men push for peace. And the stereotypes about them don't fully hold: Beilin has proven he has strategic prowess and is no shrinking violet, Barak has a masters degree in engineering from Stanford University and is no mere strongman.

But their approaches to peace are clearly different.

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Take the issue of Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. On Feb. 4, a helicopter crash killed 73 Israeli soldiers and airmen on their way to defend Israel's self-declared "security zone" there. In the wake of the crash, Beilin met with players across the political spectrum to discuss Israeli retreat with or without a peace settlement with Lebanon and Syria.

To Beilin and many Israelis, Lebanon has become a kind of Vietnam, taking a terrible toll in young troops' lives.

Barak, however, insists that peace must be pursued only by talks with Syria - which wants to regain the Golan Heights it lost to Israel almost 30 years ago. In exchange for giving Syria the Golan, Barak would expect Syria to rein in the Hizbullah guerrillas who fight Israeli troops in Lebanon.

"It's not the right time for raising ideas for leaving the battleground under such tragedy," says Barak, insisting Hizbullah would simply approach the Israeli border and start launching attacks on towns and villages from there.

Sometimes Barak's words could be mistaken for those of the hard-line Netanyahu. Such similarities may be fortuitous.

After Netanyahu beat former Prime Minister Shimon Peres by attacking him as careless about security and terrorism, Barak is seeking a political center where he thinks he can gain swing voters from Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party.

And with Barak's heavyweight background as a former Army chief of staff, he has already received a slew of endorsements. Party politicos think he's the man most likely to beat Netanyahu.

In that equation, Mr. Beilin thinks people are forgetting to look past election day. "I don't believe what we need is a tough candidate," says Beilin, who was an Army radio operator and later a journalist. "What we need is a leader. He's seen as the obvious candidate, but not necessarily the best prime minister."

An author and political scientist, Beilin thinks Labor shouldn't pander to the "floating vote." But Beilin is so closely associated with Mr. Peres - who still formally heads the party - that some don't consider him electable.

In fact, the power struggle between Beilin and Barak is much like the one between Peres and the late premier Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995.

Barak was Rabin's protg, while Beilin was so clearly groomed by Peres that Rabin once dismissed a young Beilin as "Peres' poodle."

Peres and Beilin represent a dovish, more intellectual wing of the Labor Party whose drive for Palestinian self-rule includes moral considerations.

Barak comes from the Rabin school that says security is the reason Israel should trade land for peace.

It was Peres' reputation for being too much a visionary and too little a guardian of national security that cost him last year's election. Beilin, too, has a vision for peace that could serve as both a strength and weakness.

One blueprint has his name on it - the so-called Abu Mazen-Yossi Beilin map for a final Israeli-Palestinian territorial settlement.

But Barak blames Beilin's map-making for Labor's failure last May and thinks his plans could prevent Labor from regaining control in the near future.

"It's not something useful and in a way it's even damaging," Barak says.

In the Mideast milieu, Barak thinks Israel shouldn't be showing all its cards. "I don't think it makes any sense to go into the details. This is a different culture of negotiation. Whenever you declare what you are willing to give up, the negotiations will begin from this point on."

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