Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday evening that he does not see himself as a candidate to replace Olmert in the prime minister's office.
The two agreed, however, to work together to promote Peres' bid for the presidency.
Peres' comments came hours after Kadima MK David Tal said he was suited to be prime minister, in the wake of calls by senior Kadima members for the party to begin preparations to replace Olmert.
During recent conversations, Tal said he believes Olmert should resign in the wake of the Winograd Committee's partial report on the Second Lebanon War.
Tal is just the latest of several Kadima MKs to call on their party leader to resign, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki, who resigned following the war report's publication.
The senior Kadima officials said Tuesday that the party should begin readying for party primaries, in response to a public statement by former prime minister Ehud Barak urging Olmert to resign.
Barak is one of the two leading candidates for the Labor Party leadership, and the other, Ami Ayalon, announced several days ago that he would not serve in an Olmert government should he win the May 28 primary.
Thus Barak's statement, ending several days of silence on the issue, effectively sounded the death knell for Olmert's government, Kadima officials said.
Barak did not actually rule out serving in an Olmert government, but said that if Olmert refused to either resign or call early elections, he would work to forge a broad parliamentary consensus in favor of new elections. He declined to state precisely when he thought such elections should take place, but opined that a transition government headed by Olmert would remain in place for "several months" until this happened. His aides said later that this meant seven to 10 months.
Under Kadima's bylaws, a primary cannot replace an incumbent party leader midterm, so effectively, the primary can only be held once general elections are scheduled. However, party officials said, with elections looking imminent, it makes sense to start planning the primary now. Ministers Tzipi Livni, Shaul Mofaz and Meir Sheetrit all intend to run in the primary.
Olmert's associates declined to respond to Barak's announcement on the record on Tuesday, saying that they did not want to intervene in Labor's internal affairs - a reference to the party's upcoming leadership primary. Off the record, however, they said that they had not expected such a declaration from Barak, and many of them were furious.
Immediately after last summer's war, Barak and Olmert formed a strategic alliance. They conversed frequently, and both had planned on Barak eventually replacing the current Labor Party chairman, Amir Peretz, as defense minister. Olmert believed that this would help to rehabilitate his battered government, and Barak even made this the centerpiece of his primary campaign, saying that his goal was to replace Peretz as defense minister in order to deal with the country's security and diplomatic challenges.
However, the Winograd report's scathing critique of Olmert's performance in the Second Lebanon War resulted in growing public pressure on Barak to demand the prime minister's resignation, as Ayalon did. Barak tried to avoid taking a public stance on the issue, but eventually, opinion polls showing that a majority of the public wanted Olmert to resign convinced him that he had to distance himself from the premier.
On Tuesday, therefore, he called an impromptu press conference on the lawn at Kibbutz Sdot Yam, where he was campaigning for the primary. At this conference, he noted that former army chief of staff Dan Halutz has already resigned, while Peretz has pledged to leave the Defense Ministry after the primary. "I believe that the prime minister, whom I admire and know to be an Israeli patriot, will also find an appropriate way of drawing conclusions, but so far, this hasn't happened," he said.
If Olmert has reached such a conclusion by May 29, the day after Labor's primary, the way will be open for Labor to participate in a transition government until elections take place, in order to deal with Israel's urgent security challenges, Barak continued. But if not, he will work to forge an agreement on early elections.
One of Barak's problems in formulating a public stance on this issue was how to maneuver between the opposing views of his own supporters in the Labor Party. Labor Party Secretary General Eitan Cabel, for instance, resigned from the cabinet over the Winograd report and publicly demanded Olmert's resignation, and he wanted Barak to do the same. In contrast, Ministers Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Isaac Herzog and Shalom Simhon have remained in the cabinet, and they urged Barak not to rule out serving under Olmert, for fear that Labor's withdrawal from the government could lead to new elections before Barak was ready for them. His speech was therefore an effort to please everyone: He denounced Olmert, but did not rule out serving in his cabinet - a position similar to that adopted by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, but in contrast to Ayalon's pledge not to sit in an Olmert government.
In response to Tuesday's press conference, Barak's rivals for the Labor leadership attacked him, saying that his remarks were ambiguous and did not clearly distance him from Olmert.
Ayalon said that if Labor wants to gain the public's trust and return to power, it must speak out clearly. "The Israeli public is sick of a leadership based on manipulations and demands an honest leadership," he said. "After I am elected, my party will not allow Olmert to continue in his post and will work to establish a national rehabilitation government without Olmert. A government headed by Olmert cannot rehabilitate anything, because Olmert has completely lost the trust of the Israeli public."
MKs Ophir Pines-Paz and Danny Yatom, who are also running in the primary, similarly charged that the public is still in the dark about where Barak really stands.
Peretz, however, has not demanded Olmert's resignation and, like Barak, is leaving open the option of remaining in the government should he be reelected as Labor chairman.
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