Labor Party Abuzz: Was There a Deal or Wasn´t There?

Matan Vilnai, dropping out of the race for Labor Party chairman, says he accepts Peres' offer to be a "full partner." Peres says Vilnai will be his Defense Minister. Vilnai says there was no deal.

Hillel Fendel , | updated: 9:28 AM

The race for Labor Party chairman, which has been underway for over two years, is in its final stretch - and continues to cause the party embarrassment. The party's primaries will be held this Wednesday, in 330 polling stations throughout the country. Though four candidates remained as of yesterday, the main competition is between Shimon Peres and Amir Peretz. The other two candidates, Matan Vilnai and and former party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, were pressured to drop out - and last night, Vilnai did.

At around 6:30 PM last night (Sunday), Shimon Peres officially called upon Vilnai to withdraw from the race, offering him a "full partnership" in running the party. Peres even said that if he forms the next government, Vilnai - a former Deputy Chief of Staff in the IDF - would be his Defense Minister.

Some two hours later, Vilnai held a press conference at his Tel Aviv office, and said, "Out of a sense of responsibility and with a heavy heart, I accept Shimon Peres' offer to be his partner in leading the party and to be the first one behind him in the process of rehabilitating the party, preparing it for the coming elections against the Likud, and then leading the State of Israel."

Vilnai explained that though "there is a very large sector in the party that supports me, it is only the third-largest. As a realistic and open-eyed leader, I understand that my victory will have to wait..."

This morning, Vilnai denied allegations that he had sold his ideals and made a "political deal" with Peres. Denying that he had been promised the Defense Ministry, he said, "What deal was there? There is deep trust between Shimon and myself." Asked how he could now support Peres when only recently he said that Peres would lead the party to defeat, Vilnai said, "When I am with him, the entire situation looks different."

Amir Peretz, the Histadrut Labor Union chairman who recently joined Labor and now wishes to lead a "social revolution," says that the Vilnai-Peres partnership is simply a way of ganging up against his own candidacy. Peretz said that the recent developments appear to be an attempt to "buy power [by promising] jobs," and in fact his aides were reported to be considering turning to the courts to review the Peres-Vilnai understandings.

Peretz aides said it appears that "all means are acceptable" to stop Peretz: "First they changed the date of the election, then they changed the voters [by disqualifying allegedly fraudulent registrations - ed.], and now they're changing the candidates."

Shimon Peres is in favor of remaining in the national unity government with the Likud, while Amir Peretz says that Labor must quit the unity government immediately.

Pressure is now being brought to bear upon Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to withdraw from the race, but these efforts appear to be futile. Ben-Eliezer continues to insist that he will not drop out of the race, saying that while Peres is content with being second to Sharon, "I plan to lead the party to victory over the Likud."