Labor candidates call for also-ran campaign

'The public does not see Peretz as prime minister material,' says party official.

As the Labor Party resumed its election campaign Wednesday, top officials voiced concern over what they call a "split in the campaign strategy." Citing Labor's downward spiral in the polls, several Labor Party candidates are pushing for a new tactic that would promote Labor as a strong partner to the eventual ruling party rather than aspiring to lead the country, said the officials. "Nobody wants to admit it, but the public does not seem to see [Labor Party Chairman Amir] Peretz as prime minister material," said one Labor official at the party's campaign headquarters. "We are starting to feel that we will go up in the polls if we present ourselves as partners to the prime minister, rather than challenging the prime minister." On Tuesday polls showed Labor dropping to 16 mandates, while an Olmert-led Kadima continued to gather strength with 44. "Olmert is a very intelligent person," said David Kimche, a Mossad veteran and adviser to Peretz. "He's sharp, sometimes too sharp. He's moved, as many other Israelis [have], a long way down the road to political moderation." Kimche also suggested that if Olmert was elected prime minister, he would likely turn to Peretz to join his coalition. "It will not be an easy coalition agreement, because [Peretz] will demand a price, knowing that certainly Mr. Olmert will not easily want to take in Netanyahu as his coalition partner," Kimche said. In the days following Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hospitalization, Peretz said he would assist Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in maintaining government stability. The move led several party officials to hope that he would adopt the new strategy. In the days since, however, Peretz has spoken out against Olmert and has continued to promote himself as the best candidate for prime minister. Sources close to Peretz suggested that the suggestions for a change in campaign strategy were being raised by party members who had their own political motivations. On Wednesday, in a press conference presenting the Labor Party election team, Peretz challenged Olmert and Likud Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu to join him in a tour across Israel and attacked Kadima for using Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ill health to garner support. "Let's not hide behind the television screen, but look people in the eyes. Those who are not scared will join me," Peretz said. "The events in Kadima prove that that party was about job allotments while the Labor Party is about the Labor Party." MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer also expressed optimism over his party's chances of winning the March 28 general elections, attributing Kadima's recent rise in the polls to public sympathy for Sharon's hospitalization. "When the January 17 Labor primary election comes, and Labor has a list to present to the public, Labor will go up in the polls," said a party spokeswoman. Aides to Peretz have expressed the same sentiment over the past month, but party members are complaining that faith in the party list may be overly optimistic. "It does not bode well for Labor that we have gone through two campaign advisers and now, three months before elections, have no one to head the election campaign," said one senior Labor member. On Wednesday, campaign manager Shmulik Cohen became the most recent dropout following allegations that he was heavily in debt and involved in dubious financial dealings. Cohen took over for former manager Motti Morel less than a week ago, after Morel quit following a dispute over his salary. A Labor Party spokeswoman said that party officials would decide on a new manager by Thursday, but refused to say whom they were considering. "There have certainly been a number of problems in the Labor campaign, including the constant switching of campaign managers," said MK Ophir Paz-Pines. "However, in one week the primary election will conclude and we will strike out in a new direction, with a cemented list and a campaign that focuses on Israel's most important needs." Meanwhile, MK Isaac Herzog said at the press conference that 1,000 new volunteers were joining Labor every day. "Since the beginning of the campaign more than 11,000 volunteers have signed up and offered to perform a range of jobs to lead to Labor's victory in the coming elections," said Herzog, who heads the party's volunteer organization. "We expect the trend of joining the Labor Party to grow in the coming weeks at the rate we are witnessing today." Herzog is rumored to have secured one of the top five seats in the party's election list, although the official list will be voted on during the primaries on Tuesday. Ami Ayalon, Paz-Pines and Avishay Braverman are also considered likely to be in the top five, said party officials. Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.