Former prime minister Ehud Barak formally withdrew his candidacy for the Labor Party leadership on Sunday, calling on the other three candidates to unite behind acting party leader Shimon Peres.
None of the other candidates National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Science Minister Matan Vilnaâ€™i and MK Amir Peretz took him up on his offer. Each man swore he was the best politician to lead the party as he gave his opening campaign speech before the Labor Party Central Committee meeting in Tel Aviv.
The committee also voted on a November 8 or 9 primary date to pick a new leader. Peres has been the acting head since MK Amram Mitzna resigned in May 2003.
Barak promised the party that in stepping aside to support Peres he was not giving up his political dreams forever.
â€œI shall return again and ask to represent you in the Knesset and in the government,â€ he told party members.
Echoing a statement that Mitzna often made when he was party leader, Barak told the gathering that he was â€œa marathon runner and not a sprinter.â€ He reminded them that he had a long history of leadership, having been defense minister, foreign minister, interior minister, opposition leader and MK.
But, he said, this was not his moment to return to politics.
â€œAt this time, I call on everyone, including the candidates, to put aside personal interests and to come together to support the candidate who has the best chance of succeeding,â€ he said. Meaning no slight to the other candidates, he said he believed that Peres stood the best chance in an election against either of the Likud politicians, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or MK Binyamin Netanyahu.
Vilnaâ€™i and Ben-Eliezer both told committee members that they were the best person to lead the party to victory against the Likud.
â€œIâ€™m remaining in the race until the end,â€ said Ben-Eliezer.
Vilnaâ€™i explained that by staying in the race he wasnâ€™t stopping Peres from continuing to act in a leadership role. Peres, he said, could remain active on issues relating to diplomacy and Negev and Galilee development. Such a move, he said, would only serve to strengthen the party.
The battle for party leadership is a fight between the past and the present, said Vilnaâ€™i, explaining that the time had come for a younger leadership to take over.
Peretz spoke of the partyâ€™s need to fight for socioeconomic justice, a call that was echoed by Peres as well in his speech before the committee.
Peretz also defended his bid for leadership against Peres, who had successfully worked to merge Peretzâ€™s party Am Ehad with Labor.
â€œI didnâ€™t make any promises to Shimon and he didnâ€™t make any to me,â€ said Peretz, explaining that their sole agreement was to work to strengthen the party.
The meeting ended with a call, which was rejected by younger members, for the party to leave the government now that Israel has pulled out of Gaza.
Also in Tel Aviv on Sunday night, Netanyahu met with 500 Likud members to garner support for a November primary date for the Likud leadership. The event was closed to the media.
Netanyahu has already opened his campaign to oust Sharon as head of the Likud.
According to his spokesman, Netanyahu told the gathering, that he wants to return the Likud to its traditional values. He said that those who support him in his quest for leadership represent â€œthe real heart of the Likud.â€
Netanyahu also warned that â€œjust like after Oslo, we are witnessing a euphoria that will blow up in our faces.
Sharon shot back at Netanyahu in a meeting with some 100 party members in an effort to ensure that when the Likud Central Committee votes on September 26, it supports his bid for an April primary.
Netanyahu has â€œcrazy ambitions,â€ Sharon said, accusing him of trying to split the party.
He also said it was important to bring voters to the September meeting, said Sharonâ€šs spokesman.
Before leaving for New York on Tuesday, Sharon will hold telephone conversations with party members on Monday regarding the need for an April primary date.