Labor MK Ami Ayalon spoke to defeated Labor chairman Amir Peretz on Tuesday morning in a conversation both sides said would likely lead to Peretz endorsing Ayalon in a June 12 runoff race against former prime minister Ehud Barak. Barak defeated Ayalon in Monday's Labor primary, 35.6 percent to 30.6%, but neither candidate received the necessary 40% of the vote to avoid a runoff race. Peretz won 22.4% of the vote, making him a potential kingmaker whose endorsement could decide the winner of the runoff. In a speech to party activists outside his Rishon Lezion campaign headquarters Tuesday night, Peretz said he would not rule out endorsing either candidate on a personal basis. He denied a Channel 2 report that an agreement to support Ayalon in return for a plum portfolio had already been drafted.
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"If anyone thought they could weaken the socioeconomic camp, they saw that we are stronger than before," Peretz told the crowd. "Don't buy reports about secret meetings. Everything we will do will be transparent."
But sources close to Peretz said it was extremely unlikely that he would support Barak, whom he has criticized fiercely over the past two years. They said that after a few days of consultations and negotiations, Peretz would likely endorse Ayalon in a speech Sunday.
Former MK Adisu Messele, a Peretz confidant whose re-election to the Knesset was blocked by Barak, said that if there were a democratic choice by Peretz's camp to back Barak, he'd respect it, but he could not commit to voting for him.
"Barak failed as prime minister and then he traveled around the world to line his own pockets instead of contributing to this country," Messele said. "Israeli citizens aren't stupid enough to vote for him."
"This is our chance to join Ami Ayalon and give Labor a chance to defeat [Likud chairman Binyamin] Netanyahu."
An Ayalon adviser said Peretz should endorse him because his socioeconomic policies were similar and because "Peretz knows that Ami, unlike Barak, will keep his word."
Sources close to Barak questioned the value of an endorsement from Peretz and said he would not go out of his way to draft Peretz's support. They said Barak was more likely to try to divide the Peretz camp by winning the endorsement of Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle, who led Peretz to victory in the Arab sector.
"Ayalon can make whatever deal he wants," a Barak associate said. "The voters are smart enough that any trick he plays will come back to him as a boomerang."
But other Barak backers said they still hoped Peretz would endorse Barak, because Labor was more likely to remain in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government if he won. Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel, a Barak supporter, expressed confidence that he could persuade Peretz to endorse him. Cabel's brother Boaz is Peretz's political adviser.
"I think I can gain their trust to bring them to a joint path," Cabel said. "I think Amir is worthy of being No. 2 in Labor, and the combination of Ehud at the head and Amir Peretz as his number 2 and his main man on the socioeconomic issues that he is identified with could create new hope in the Labor Party."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has made an effort to distance himself from the Labor race, called Peretz on Tuesday to congratulate him for his unexpectedly strong finish. Olmert praised Peretz for an "impressive achievement" that proved that he was "made of serious stuff."