(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On endorsed Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in the Kadima leadership on Thursday, because his first choice, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is not running.
Bar-On, one of Olmert's closest allies, said he decided to support Livni despite Olmert's animosity for her. The endorsement could pave the way for other former Olmert allies to support Livni.
"In politics, you have to have the ability to forgive," Bar-On said in a press conference at his Tel Aviv office. "If Olmert would have run again, I would have supported him, but because he didn't, I had to make a decision. I have known Olmert as a friend and a political colleague for almost 40 years. I respect his decision, even though it didn't make me happy."
Bar-On's associates said one of the reasons why he chose Livni over Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz was that Mofaz had promised Shas he would raise child welfare benefits, a move Bar-On has said would result in his resignation.
"I will advise [Livni] not to form a government at any price," Bar-On said. "We are not afraid of elections. If we need to, we will go to elections, we will win and Tzipi will form the next government."
Bar-On said he called Olmert and the other candidates to inform them of his decision. He said that all four candidates were good, but he had decided to make an endorsement, and chose Livni because she had the best chance of winning a general election.
"They don't pay us to abstain or to sit on the fence, even if it's a comfortable fence," Bar-On said. "Livni is the most fitting, qualified and experienced person for the Kadima leadership and therefore, the premiership. Most importantly, she is the candidate who can lead what Israeli society needs more than anything: a kind of internal appeasement and consensus."
Bar-On became the second member of the Kadima faction to publicly endorse Livni since Olmert's announcement last week that he would resign from his post once his successor was chosen by the party.
Coalition chairman Yoel Hasson declared his support for the foreign minister on Monday. Before Olmert announced he would step down, Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra, Deputy Foreign Minister Majallie Whbee, MK Shlomo Molla, MK Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael and MK Amira Dotan expressed their support for Livni.
Livni called Bar-On to thank him and hinted that she would reward him politically.
"We were partners when we left the Likud for Kadima because we believed in it and its path, and now I see you as a full and senior partner in a new effort to strengthen Kadima and guarantee it will continue to lead Israel," Livni told Bar-On.
Mofaz's campaign responded that his support from mayors and other top Kadima activists in the field was much more important than backing from MKs. The only MK who currently backs Mofaz is Ze'ev Elkin, but Mofaz's associates said he would receive endorsements next week.
The two most important available endorsements are from Vice Premier Haim Ramon and Tzahi Hanegbi. Speaker Dalia Itzik is expected to announce that she will not back any candidate, but she is waiting to make the declaration until President Shimon Peres returns from China and she ceases to be acting president.
Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who is trailing Livni and Mofaz in the polls, said Thursday afternoon that he had every chance of winning the race and promised that he had "surprises in store."
"The preparations for the Olympics were a lot longer than my preparation for the primary," he said during a scholarship ceremony for Druse students in Haifa. "But I still have another five weeks left, and in Israel there are more than seven days in a week."
The fourth candidate, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, told Channel 10 Thursday night that if elected, he would insist on changing the electoral system immediately, even before his government would be formed. Sheetrit, who headed an electoral reform committee appointed by former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2003, said he would institute direct regional elections for the Knesset.
Jonny Hadi contributed to this report.