The Labor Party's leadership contender MK Isaac Herzog yesterday sought to draw a line under the controversial comments attributed to him about Amir Peretz, also criticizing Haaretz for its coverage of the WikiLeaks-inspired affair.

Herzog was forced to explain problematic statements attributed to him in leaked American diplomatic cables, released by WikiLeaks and published by Haaretz last week.

After Amir Peretz had been elected as Labor leader in 2005, Herzog allegedly said that voters perceived him as "aggressive, inexperienced and Moroccan." Seeking to calm the fears of an American diplomat, Herzog explained that the rest of the party's Knesset list for the 2006 elections was Ashkenazi enough to balance out Peretz's Moroccan origins.

Yesterday, Herzog was quoted as telling the American ambassador that Peretz's campaign promise to appoint an Arab minister was damaging the Labor party and that the Russian public would support Kadima and Ariel Sharon because they "prefer Ashkenazi leaders."

"There is nothing new in the latest report," Herzog said yesterday, defending his position. "The [WikiLeaks] comments describe polls and analysis published at the time. It's a pity Haaretz did not choose to make such headlines out of my statements and actions to eliminate poverty in Israel when I was Social Affairs Minister."

Along with MK Shelly Yachimovitch, Herzog is one of the two chief contenders for the leadership of the Labor party. Amir Peretz announced his candidacy last week but is lagging behind both Herzog and Yachimovitch in the polls.

Ever since resigning as Social Affairs Minister in January, following the Labor party split, Herzog has been busy with his leadership bid. He is seen as one of the party's most popular MKs.

However, the reports of his frank conversations with the Americans have created a new front for Herzog mid-campaign, and may well affect the results of the race. He has taken damage limitation action, including meeting Peretz and telling him his version of events. Peretz said after the meeting that the issue was over and done with.