The Labor Party central committee set a May 28 date for the Labor leadership race Thursday, following a series of compromises between the candidates.
The decision formally kicked off a 165-day race in which Labor chairman Amir Peretz will be fighting for his political survival.
Peretz vowed to take advantage of the party's six-week membership drive that ends January 30 to bring new supporters into the party and remain in power.
"I have been blamed for everything except the escape of Benny Sela," a combative Peretz told the crowd at Tel Aviv's Dan Panorama Hotel. "I take the criticism to heart. But I won't give in to pressure. No one can forget that I am made of different material and I won't break. I won't flee to America or to Yeroham. I know how to fight and I will win." Peretz was referring to two of his predecessors, Yeroham Mayor Amram Mitzna and former prime minister Ehud Barak.
Speculation surfaced after the central committee vote over whether Barak would join a field of candidates that officially includes Peretz and MKs Ami Ayalon, Avishay Braverman, Ophir Paz-Pines, Danny Yatom and possibly Matan Vilna'i.
Sources close to Barak said he would decide within a week whether to run. They said he would have preferred that the central committee had decided not to hold a membership drive, but the May date for the race was good for him. One candidate said the reason he wanted to open the drive was to discourage Barak from running.
A Ma'agar Muhot poll of 527 Labor members broadcast on Israel Radio Thursday found that if the election was held today, Ayalon would win with 26 percent of the vote, followed by Paz-Pines with 19%, Peretz 16%, Barak 14%, Braverman 9% and Yatom 4%.
Asked who they wanted as defense minister, 45% of the respondents said Ayalon and 25% Barak. In a separate question, 75% said they did not want Peretz as defense minister.
In another bad sign for Peretz, his calls for the central committee to talk about the economic issue the meeting was initially called for went unheeded. As soon as the vote on the election date was completed and the economic debate began, the overwhelming majority of the crowd left, leaving behind only 40 people.
Labor secretary-general Eitan Cabel expressed satisfaction that Labor would welcome new members, who will each pay a fee of NIS 40 to NIS 80 that will help the party repay its debts and finance the election.
"I am screaming but no one is listening to me that it's impossible to make do with the budget of 19 mandates and pay the party's salaries and debts," Cabel said. "There comes a time when not everything is political. Democracy costs money."
National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer negotiated the compromises, persuading Peretz to drop his effort to postpone the vote and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon to give up his proposal for an election in March with no membership drive.
Ben-Eliezer said Labor had "avoided World War III" and prevented infighting over the election date that could have cost the party additional seats in the next Knesset.
"It's a big achievement that keeps the party together," he said. "I am glad that the pictures from today are of compromise and not of fighting."
Ben-Eliezer said whoever is elected in May would not automatically be the party's candidate for prime minister in the next election, so there may have to be yet another Labor race in the near future.