Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin announced on Sunday that he would not run for reelection in the March 18 party primary, deciding instead to endorse the front-runner for the post, MK Haim Oron. In a press conference at Tel Aviv's Beit Sokolov, Beilin said he had never intended to run for the Meretz leadership when he joined the party and that he was glad to be able to focus on advancing the peace process as a regular MK. But Meretz officials said that once Oron joined the race two weeks ago, Beilin had no chance of winning, so he preferred to leave gracefully. "If Oron would have run last time, I would have supported him and not run against him," Beilin revealed. "I wouldn't run against a full partner to my path, who is also a close friend, and I never violated that rule. Haim's candidacy frees me to focus intensively on diplomatic issues in 2008, the most critical year in the negotiations with the Palestinians." Beilin, who was elected Meretz leader in 2004, denied reports that he had considered retiring from politics, quitting the Knesset or returning to the Labor Party. He said he expected to run for the next Knesset in Meretz and that he opposed efforts to merge the party with Labor. In last year's general election, Beilin failed to upgrade Meretz from its six seats in the previous Knesset, winning only five. He blamed Meretz's poor showing on Labor's choice of Amir Peretz as party chairman, saying Peretz's views were similar to those of Meretz. "If someone else would have led us, we would have lost a lot more than one mandate," Beilin said. "Meretz's main problem is the questions of its relevance. Our success in promoting our ideology and the fact that so many people have started speaking 'Meretzese' unfortunately hasn't translated into electoral success." Beilin said he would focus his energy now on promoting Oron and the Annapolis peace process. He said he would convene a conference in January entitled "Achieving Peace in a Year," which would bring together many architects of past peace accords. The other issues Beilin intends to focus on as an MK include the birthright israel program he helped found, diplomatic talks with Syria and brokering a cease-fire between Israel and the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip. He revealed that messages had been sent recently to top Israeli officials from senior Hamas leaders exploring that possibility. Beilin angered Oron's challenger, MK Ran Cohen, when he said he thought his endorsement of Oron would mark the end of the race in Meretz. Oron said he wished Beilin would have erased that sentence from his speech. "Beilin's support for Oron is an attempt to maintain the leadership that is responsible for the party's failure and to keep the party disconnected from reality," Cohen said. "I am running to return Meretz to its former relevance and open its ranks to new sectors." The third candidate in the race, MK Zehava Gal-On, who hopes to win over Beilin's former supporters, said he "demonstrated responsibility" by not running. Under her leadership, she said, Meretz would "change its direction and return to being a courageous, relevant and influential party." Oron said Beilin's endorsement proved that Meretz was a party that could rise above personal aspirations and put essential matters above political disputes. He said uniting Meretz under his leadership would allow the party to attract a large percentage of the population that believed in struggling for peace and a more correct society.