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      Fraud Rocks Labor Party

      Thousands of fraudulent membership forms have forced a postponement of the leadership vote set for Tuesday. Contenders are in an uproar, and Shimon Peres warns of the death of the party.
      First Publish: 6/25/2005, 10:50 PM / Last Update: 6/24/2005, 4:58 PM

      Labor party secretary-general MK Eitan Cabel announced Thursday night that the invalid registration forms are a "cloud hanging over our heads" that prevent the vote for chairman from taking place as scheduled on Tuesday. Shimon Peres, the current leader, warned that a lengthy delay could spell the demise of the party and that the forms could be checked for fraud in two weeks.

      But most party officials as well as political analysts have stated that it will take at least several weeks to go through more than 100,000 membership forms. A preliminary inquiry by a former judge revealed last week that up to 30,000 forms were forged, altered, or paid for by "vote contractors."

      The police have entered the case and have demanded that Cabel turn over the forms for a criminal investigation that threatens to damage several contenders.

      Peres' four opponents for the post are under a shadow of suspicion for not saying anything about the allegations until wide publication of the fraud charges. Infrastructure Minister Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer had boasted that he brought in thousands of new members, many of them from the Arab sector, the source of a large number of forgeries. He and Minister Without Portfolio Matan Vilnai have fought against postponing the vote.

      Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who has waged a campaign to delay the elections because of his weak support in polls, nevertheless did not demand that the party rule the membership drive invalid. The other candidate, Histadrut labor union leader Amir Peretz, previously promised that the membership drive would be the cleanest in history.

      All of the candidates hurled insults at each other after Cabel's dramatic announcement that the vote for a chairman would be delayed. Peres himself is being castigated for not using his position as current chairman to oversee the registration drive and prevent irregularities.

      Vilnai accused Peres of not fulfilling his role properly. "This is an earthquake and a huge organizational blunder," he said. Barak put the blame on Peretz, accusing him of corruption. Peretz denied the charges and accused Barak of stirring up trouble because of his low rating in the polls. Peres also criticized Barak for returning to the Labor party "to sling mud."

      The Central Committee will decide next week on another election date, which party members said could be any time up to six months in the future. One factor on setting a date is the planned evacuation from the Gaza and northern Samaria regions, which is supposed to start in mid-August and last for several weeks.

      Meanwhile, officials of the Likud party, which polls have predicted will lose strength in the next elections, have kept silent about Labor's woes.