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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Incumbent Labor chairman Shimon Peres's chances of getting reelected increased dramatically on Sunday when interim Science and Technology Minister Matan Vilna'i, who was running third in the polls, accepted Peres's offer to quit the race.
Vilna'i met secretly on Saturday with Peres's son, businessman Chemi Peres, and worked out the details of the deal. Vilna'i rejected repeated requests to quit until Chemi promised that he would effectively become his father's second-in-command in the party leadership.
"I invited him to stand beside me as my senior partner in running the party and the country," Peres announced in a press conference in his Tel Aviv campaign headquarters. "I respect his leadership, we agree on our outlook for solving the country, and two heads are better than one."
MK Amir Peretz held a press conference Monday morning to discuss the shifts in the Labor race.
He spoke disparagingly about the deal brokered between Peres and Vilna'i. "The pact signed yesterday is not the league to save Shimon. It's the league to save Sharon. Peres asked Vilna'i to join him to help him beat me, so I appeal to Matan's voters in the Kibbutz movement to help me beat the Likud."
Peretz continued: "I say to them not to let this deal make the social gaps in the country permanent. The poor people in line at the soup kitchens are asking you to save them. Sharon is the prime minister of poverty."
"I think national-unity governments destroy democracy. If I win, the entire Labor leadership will call for leaving the government, and our mandates will rise to 30 immediately," Peretz vowed.
Peretz declared that he did not care about political patronage positions, and that he had met all night with Vilna'i's supporters.
Peres said that if he forms the next government, Vilna'i, who is a former IDF deputy chief of staff, would be his candidate for defense minister and not former Labor chairmen Ehud Barak or Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. But he also took a shot at his new partner, noting that he respects Barak for endorsing him "without presenting conditions."
Vilna'i canceled a campaign event in Holon and hastily called a press conference in his Tel Aviv office. He said that he accepted Peres's offer "out of a feeling of responsibility and with a heavy heart."
"Labor under Shimon Peres and Matan Vilna'i is on its way back to power," Vilna'i said.
Asked about his constant criticism over the past few months of Peres, who he called "the Likud's dream challenger," Vilna'i said that thanks to his support, Peres had a chance to get elected prime minister.
"You have to be realistic and not commit suicide," Vilna'i said unenthusiastically.
Peretz's campaign sent reporters a long list of quotes of Vilna'i insulting Peres. His spokesman said that when it looked like Peretz would win, the race was delayed, then the party's membership rolls were changed, and now the candidates have been changed too.
"I trust that Vilna'i's voters will still believe what he said all along over the past two years about the need to change the leadership in the party," Peretz said. "I think it's wrong that everyone is ganging up on me but I still think I can win."
Ben-Eliezer, who rose to third in the polls with Vilna'i's departure, vowed to stay in the race and called upon Peres and Peretz to quit. However, his aides admitted that the main reason that he was staying in the race was that if he dropped out, many of his supporters would vote for Peretz.
"There is no chance whatsoever of me quitting the race so erase it from the realm of possibility," Ben-Eliezer said. "Thousands of people joined Labor in order to vote for me. My supporters in the field say the battle isn't over yet. There will be a revolution in this party and I will win."
Ben-Eliezer called Vilna'i a political neophyte said that he pitied him. Barak, who quit the Labor race in September, said of Vilna'i: "better late than never."
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