The showdown between the two main Labor leadership candidates, incumbent Shimon Peres and challenger Amir Peretz, became more personal on Monday, two days ahead of Wednesday's Labor primary.
The primary effectively became a two-man race after Matan Vilna'i quit the contest on Sunday, because Binyamin Ben-Eliezer is not expected to be a serious factor in the race. Peres and Peretz, who were political allies until recently, ignored each other in the Knesset hallways and attacked each other before the television cameras.
"The covenant that was signed [between Peres and Vilna'i] is not a union to save Shimon but a union to save Sharon," Peretz said in a press conference at the Knesset. "Peres asked Vilna'i to join him to help him beat me, so I appeal to Matan's voters to help me beat the Likud. I say to them not to let this union result in the social gaps in the country becoming unfixable, because the people in the soup kitchens are depending on them."
Sources close to Peretz hinted that there was a racial element in the race because the Ashkenazi Peres, Vilna'i and Ehud Barak had united against the Sephardi Peretz and Ben-Eliezer. But Peretz rejected the idea and vowed that if he were elected Labor chairman, he would have a ceremony to "bury the ethnic issue and ensure it will never be raised again."
Peretz's associates accused Peres of making "a stinking deal" with Vilna'i that brought Peres Vilna'i's support in return for becoming Peres's number two. Peretz said that he would never take a political patronage position in return for his political support.
Peres responded that when Peretz joined Labor, he had also demanded the number two position in the party. He said that his agreement with Vilna'i was "completely kosher." Responding to Peretz's vow to take Labor out of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government, Peres said that, had Peretz been Labor's chairman, Labor would have never joined the government and disengagement would never have happened.
The Peretz and Peres campaigns also argued over which candidate received the support of a majority of Vilna'i's top supporters. Peretz distributed a list of 21 key Labor activists who had shifted from Vilna'i to him, but Peres's and Vilna'i's people said that the overwhelming majority of Vilna'i's supporters had become Peres backers.
Peres had his first working meeting with Vilna'i at the Knesset, where they vowed to work together to defeat Peretz. Peres also had a difficult meeting with Barak, who told him that he had given Vilna'i too much for his support.
Barak mocked Peres's pledge to appoint Vilna'i as defense minister in a Labor-led government, calling it "a promise written on ice on a hot summer day."
Journalist Yoav Yitzhak's News First Class Web site reported on Monday that Vilna'i, Peretz and Ben-Eliezer received illegal campaign contributions. Yitzhak reported that the information would be investigated by the judge overseeing the election for the party.
Vilna'i's spokeswoman denied the report and said that all the contributions were raised legally. She said that the timing of the report, just ahead of Wednesday's race, appeared to be "uncoincidental and politically motivated."
Channel 1 reported that the Histadrut forced its employees to join the Labor Party in order to receive financial assistance. Peretz's campaign responded that the only people who were forced to vote against their will were Vilna'i and Barak.