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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In a major endorsement, elder statesman Shimon Peres on Sunday voiced support for the leadership of Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as the successor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"Ehud Olmert was nominated by Ariel Sharon to become acting prime minister when the need for it arises. I supported it then and I support it now," Peres told an international conference of Jewish parliamentarians meeting in Jerusalem.
"If Arik Sharon is not able to return to his responsibilities, Ehud Olmert will continue to head the government and I shall support him again," he added.
Peres's remarks came amidst speculation that he might challenge Olmert for the leadership of Kadima, the new centrist party formed by Sharon, or that he may return to the Labor Party in the wake of Sharon's illness.
The Hebrew dailies angered Peres with opinion pieces on their front pages that accused him of using Sharon's hospitalization as an excuse to demand that Olmert make him his foreign minister and second-in-command. Peres accused the Hebrew press of character assassination.
"It's not me dealing with politics - it's the press that is dealing with politics and they are always pushing me," Peres said. "You can't push me into politics and then blame me for it."
Peres gradually made more and more of a commitment to Kadima in interviews with the foreign press.
He started off by telling Sky News that he is not in Kadima because of a technicality and that he supported the party's policies but did not want to discuss his future. Then he told the BBC that his future was tied to Kadima.
Finally, he told CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer program, "Probably yes, I shall be on the list." Asked by Blitzer whether Olmert will head Kadima, he said, "The answer is clearly yes, positively yes." He also promised to call upon his supporters "to vote for peace, to vote for a majority for peace and, as a consequence, to vote for Kadima."
In his address to the Council of Jewish Parliamentarians, Peres said that the far right and the far left in Israel had become minorities, with most of the country united behind the vision of peace and security set out by Sharon.
"Today there is a wide basis for peace with the full support of a new strong party of people who got tired of old definitions," he said.
The 82-year-old Peres added that Sharon's vision will be continued whether or not he recovers from the massive stroke he suffered last week.
"A person is extremely important, but so is the idea," he said.
The three-day gathering of the council, which is being sponsored by the World Jewish Congress in coordination with the Knesset and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, includes senators, MPs, ministers and from 28 countries around the world.
Labor MKs debated over whether Peres should be welcomed back to the party in a meeting of the Labor faction on Sunday at the party's Tel Aviv headquarters. Labor chairman Amir Peretz hinted that Peres would be welcome in Labor, but other MKs were more skeptical.
"Every person in the political sphere has to decide where his natural place is," Peretz said. "Labor won't close its doors to anybody, but we will also not cause talks in a manner that is not appropriate at such a critical hour."
MK Isaac Herzog called upon Peretz to "find a formula that will allow Peres to join Labor." He said he would be happy to see Peres rejoin Labor, but added, "I do not believe that we will see any dramatic moves before Sharon's situation becomes clear."
Only MK Eli Ben-Menahem was prepared to say to the cameras what other Labor MKs were saying off-the-record about Peres. "I suggest that we stop begging Shimon Peres, because it is hurting the party," Ben-Menahem told the faction. "He is still a member of Labor, and he can come back if he wants to. But stop kissing up to people you think can save the party."