Peres: I'm Not Running for PM

Vice Premier Shimon Peres yesterday told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he was interested in contesting the presidency, not in becoming prime minister.

Olmert said he supports this aspiration, and the two agreed to work together to promote Peres' bid for the presidency.

The Winograd Committee interim report put Peres in a dilemma - whether he should seek to replace Olmert if he resigns or focus on running for president.

The last date for submitting a candidacy for president is June 3, and Peres has not yet announced his candidacy nor started collecting the required signatures of MKs to back it.

Senior Kadima figures and Olmert's associates have been pressing Peres to make up his mind. Peres would have preferred to wait, but he realizes he cannot delay his decision for much longer, they said.

In recent months Peres met with many MKs and asked them to support his bid for the presidency. Kadima even tried to pass a law proposing an open vote on the presidency, which would have increased Peres' chances. However, they could not obtain a majority to pass the law.

Knesset members who talked to Peres over the past two days heard from him that he deeply fears losing the showdown. He told some of them that he would not be humiliated again and would announce his candidacy only if he assured of being elected.

MKs who support Peres' bid for the presidency say he still lacks the required majority, in part because Shas is still hesitating and because it is clear that not all Kadima MKs would support Peres.

For example, MK Zeev Elkin supports Reuven Rivlin, the Likud's candidate. Shas Chairman Eli Yishai said after Peres met with party mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef yesterday that Yosef's heart is with Peres.

Shas people say this means there is considerable sympathy for Peres among Yosef's people, but ultimately the rabbi would decide who has the best chances and announce his support for him. Shas wants to be on the side of the winner and is taking its time checking out the MKs' positions.

Peres' tarrying with his decision puts Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik in a difficult situation. Itzik herself is considering running for president should Peres leave the race. However, the short time left until she must submit her candidacy makes it hard for her to ask MKs to support her and assess her chances, without provoking Peres' anger.

Kadima sources said yesterday the situation is causing tension between the two.

Olmert's associates said yesterday that Peres would probably announce his candidacy for president and start collecting MKs' signatures within the next few days.

MK David Tal (Kadima) said yesterday if Olmert resigns, he believed Peres was a worthy candidate to replace him.

Other politicians, such as Meretz leader MK Yossi Beilin and several Labor MKs, also said Peres was suitable to replace Olmert. Former prime minister Ehud Barak, who called on Olmert to resign on Tuesday, is also believed to prefer Peres as Kadima's leader.