Vice Premier to Knesset members: If you support me, vote for me from the start.
By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
Vice Premier Shimon Peres intends to ask the winner of Tuesday's Labor primary to persuade Labor MK Colette Avital to quit the race for president ahead of Wednesday's vote in the Knesset, sources close to Peres revealed to The Jerusalem Post Monday.
The sources said Peres has become increasingly frustrated with MKs who have told him that they intend to vote for Avital in the first round of voting and then support him against Likud MK Reuven Rivlin in later rounds held among the top two candidates. Peres has told the MKs that if they want him to be president, they should support him from the start of the voting.
"We still hope Colette quits before the race begins," a source close to Peres said. "Maybe whoever wins the Labor race will be able to knock some sense into her. [Peres] is angry at people voting for Colette in the first round. It doesn't make sense to him."
Avital's associates responded with outrage, accusing Peres of employing countless tricks in a fruitless attempt to harm her.
"Peres left the party and caused it great damage just because he didn't win the election for Labor leader in 2005," an Avital associate said. "It would be chutzpa for him to appeal to the leader of Labor with such a request after he abandoned the party."
Despite the expected overture to Avital, Peres told Arab MKs Monday that he believed he had the 61 MKs necessary to win the race in the first round if they support him. But Peres's advisers said they were not nearly as confident as their boss.
"He thinks he has 61 votes, because he believes everyone who tells him they will vote for him, but our working assumption is that he doesn't have 61," a Peres adviser admitted.
Peres's associates expressed concern that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have harmed his chances of winning by giving him another high profile endorsement Monday. They noted Olmert's unpopularity in the Knesset and the public and suggested that he was trying to take credit for a potential Peres victory in advance.
"This election is not nearly as important to Kadima as it is for Israel," Olmert told the Kadima faction Monday. "We have learned from past political battles and we know that nothing can be taken for granted.
We need to work, talk to and reach every voter and do everything possible so that on Wednesday the Knesset will do what the public wants, hopes for and expects us to do - elect Peres."
Rivlin lashed out on Monday at Olmert, his strategists and the press for putting undue pressure on MKs to vote for Peres. He joked that the press had almost convinced him to vote for Peres against himself, and he told sources close to him that Hadash MK Muhammad Barakei would be "butchered" if he admitted that he supported him.
Following meetings with more than 60 MKs in one day on Monday, Rivlin sent a letter to every MK decrying the pressure and threats his supporters were facing and accusing Peres of making a mockery of the Knesset by trying to change the law to try to guarantee his victory and by denying for a year that he would run.
"I wanted to write you directly to go above all the entertainers, propagandists, wealthy people, image consultants, PR people and strategists who have been drafted in a last-ditch effort in which everything is kosher and legitimate," Rivlin told the MKs.
Labor officials revealed that Rivlin's only open supporter in the party, MK Shelly Yacimovich, had set up meetings between Rivlin and several Labor MKs to try and sway their votes.
Aides close to Avital said that they were "very disappointed" in the number of Labor MKs who have publicly stated their support of Avital but will vote for Peres or Rivlin. Labor officials confirmed that seven MKs from the party were expected to vote for other candidates.
The Meretz faction decided Monday to give its MKs freedom to vote their conscience in the race. Meretz's MKs will split their votes between the three candidates. The Gil Pensioners' Party faction decided to unanimously endorse Peres while Israel Beiteinu decided to formally back Rivlin.
Although all three presidential candidates met with the Balad, United Arab List and Hadash factions, none were able to convince the Arab MKs to endorse them on Monday.
Spokesmen for Balad and Hadash said they would announce how they would vote Tuesday afternoon. They said they were considering abstaining from the vote in at least one of the rounds.
"The faction will make a decision together, but there is a feeling of great disappointment in the faction, and talk of abstaining from the vote," said one Hadash MK. "We are slightly offended that none of the candidates pursued us the way in which they pursued other parties, even though we hold enough seats to make a difference."
In a meeting with the United Arab List faction, Rivlin received a compliment from MK Ahmed Tibi, who praised Rivlin's father, Prof. Yoel Rivlin.
"There are four MKs here who know the Koran more or less but only one whose father translated the Koran to Hebrew," Tibi said.
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