FM's associates distance themselves from plug; Likud: Three-year delay proves PM's scorn for Livni.
By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert entered the political fray at the eleventh hour ahead of Tuesday's election when he announced at a Maccabiah conference on Sunday night that he hopes Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will succeed him.
The endorsement came after weeks of speculation, spurred by Livni's associates, that Olmert was secretly working behind the scenes on behalf of Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu.
"I know all the parties and all the candidates, maybe more than anyone," Olmert said. "I think that the rest of the candidates had a chance and didn't pass the test. Livni is a candidate who can lead Israel to a serious and responsible peace process with security. She showed determination during the war and wisdom in the diplomatic process."
Livni's associates tried to distance themselves from Olmert's announcement and said privately that they were concerned that the support of the unpopular prime minister would do more harm than good.
Kadima's rivals pounced on Olmert's endorsement, using it as political fodder to attack Livni.
"The fact that a man from Livni's party took three years and a long campaign to announce after much contemplation that he supports her proves more than anything how much scorn he really feels for her," a Labor campaign spokesman said.
Likud MK Reuven Rivlin, who has sparred with Olmert for decades, said he could tell from Olmert's intonation that his speech was not intended to help Livni
"The music of his voice wasn't supportive," Rivlin said. "He's not enthusiastic, because he knows his foreign minister's inabilities better than anyone else."
Livni and Netanyahu attacked each other in the final events of their campaigns on Sunday night. In an emotional and energized speech to Kadima activists at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, Livni said she sensed that her "victory is at hand." She painted herself as the candidate of hope and her opponents as the dispatchers of doom.
"We have proven that even in difficult times, it is possible to replace despair with dreams," Livni said. "I know that on the eve of the election, there are those who scare people with threats to Israel from inside and out. But I have enough strength to speak in the name of what we have in common and not in the name of fear, despair and hatred."
According to a Livni associate, the politicians who promulgated the fear, despair and hatred to which she referred were Netanyahu, Labor chairman Ehud Barak and Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, respectively. But a Kadima strategist said that all three negative attributes referred to Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, countered in a rally in Haifa by accusing Livni of cowardice for excusing herself from a vote in Sunday's cabinet meeting approving massive expenditures for the building of a new official residence for the prime minister.
"What we need is not a new Prime Minister's Office, but a new prime minister," Netanyahu said.
Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu toured the Golan Heights and planted a eucalyptus tree together with his son, Avner. Netanyahu defiantly vowed that the region would remain under Israeli control and that Avner would bring his grandchildren to the tree.
"The Golan will only remain in our hands if the Likud wins the election," Netanyahu said. "If Kadima wins, we will not remain in the Golan, and we'll only continue with more concessions."
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