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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Vice Premier Shimon Peres announced Sunday morning that he fully supported Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as leader of Kadima.
In an interview to Israel Radio, Peres said that he would assist Olmert in any way possible, and that the decision to appoint Olmert as leader of Kadima was a wise one.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's associates had spoken over the weekend with Peres and emerged confident that he would remain in Kadima and support Olmert's candidacy for the premiership.
Weekend polls in two papers found that Peres would bring Kadima more mandates than any other potential leader and that the public wants to see Peres head the party. Peres is also being sought after by top Labor officials who want to see him as Labor chairman Amir Peretz's number two.
Some Laborites even believe that in the post-Sharon era, the nation's only remaining elder statesman is the only candidate who can lead Labor to victory in the March 28 election, so Peretz should make way for him. Peres is the only Kadima candidate who has not formally endorsed Olmert as Sharon's successor at the helm of Kadima.
"I spoke with Peres and I believe he will stay in Kadima because of the commitment he made to Sharon," a source close to Sharon said on Saturday night. "I know that Peres will make the right choice and back Olmert. He was in the same situation as Olmert after the Rabin assassination a decade ago, so he knows how important it is to stabilize the nation and the party."
Peres and Olmert met for more than an hour on Friday at Olmert's office in Jerusalem, but spokesmen for both men said that the two did not discuss politics. Peres told reporters after the meeting that they talked about how to continue Sharon's policies.
"We talked about how to continue Sharon's path of fighting terror while continuing efforts to reach peace," Peres said. "I think Sharon's path was correct and we have to continue with it with full force. Everyone saw Sharon's importance, not only because of what he did, but because of the hopes that he could continue doing it."
Sources close to Peres were quoted as saying that Peres will not endorse Olmert without a commitment to be named his second in command and his candidate for foreign minister. But Peres's spokesman, Yoram Dori, vigorously denied that Peres was dealing with political matters while Sharon's fate is still undecided.
"Peres will not be dragged into a battle to succeed a living man, who is his friend and who is fighting for his life," Dori said. "All he wants to do now is to help the acting prime minister run the country. He believes that Olmert has the skills to be prime minister and that everyone has a responsibility to help him now."
Peres and Olmert will meet again in upcoming days to talk politics. Sharon's associates have advised Olmert that Peres is an electoral asset and that he should do everything possible to keep him in Kadima.
Olmert has called all of Sharon's advisers and all the staff of the Prime Minister's Office and asked them to stay on under him. He met on Friday with Sharon's strategists, Lior Chorev and Eyal Arad, and discussed what was needed to stabilize the country.
"We said we would do everything possible to ensure that Sharon's legacy will continue," Chorev said after the meeting. "Kadima is not just a party formulated by Sharon. It was born because there is a need for a centrist party. There is a Sharon legacy, and we have to do what Sharon would have wanted. The last thing Sharon was involved with was ensuring Kadima's success and we will make sure that his goal will be carried out."
Likud officials said that after Sharon's fate is clear, they expect Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu to issue a formal call to the Likud MKs who joined Kadima to come home.
"I want everyone to return to the Likud so we can continue running the nation," said Likud key player and Ra'anana deputy mayor Uzi Cohen. "I want all of them: Tzahi [Hanegbi], Tzipi [Livni], [Meir] Sheetrit, even Olmert. This is not a time to settle accounts. It's a time to give leadership with experience to the people of Israel."
Sources close to former prime minister Ehud Barak said that there was no chance that he would join Kadima to give the party a security man to replace Sharon. They said the door was open, however, for Peretz to give him a reserved slot near the top of the Labor list.
"Barak and his supporters will not leave, despite Amir Peretz," a Barak associate said. "We don't want to give Peretz a reason to blame us for his downfall. I hope that Peretz will stop making mistakes, will swallow his pride and will welcome Ehud back."
Polls in three newspapers this weekend found that Labor would not gain from Sharon's departure. A Dahaf Institute poll in Yediot Aharonot gave Kadima 39 seats, Labor 20 and Likud 16. A Dialogue poll in Haaretz said that Kadima would win 40, Labor 18 and Likud 13. A Ma'agar Muhot poll in Makor Rishon predicted that Kadima would win 35 mandates, Labor 19 and Likud 17.