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Shas Chairman Eli Yishai told Vice Premier Shimon Peres yesterday that the party will support his bid for the presidency, having gotten the nod to do so from its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Yishai told Peres that Yosef would instruct all 12 of the ultra-Orthodox party's MKs to vote for him in the presidential balloting.

Yosef has called a gathering of Shas's Council of Torah Sages for a final debate on Thursday. Afterward, Yishai will issue an official announcement of the decision to support Peres to the media.

The party's weight is expected to tip the balance in a race where Peres and Likud candidate MK Reuven Rivlin currently have an almost equal number of votes.

But despite Yishai's repeated statement that Yosef is leaning toward backing Peres, Likud MKs are persisting in their efforts to persuade Shas's mentor to support Rivlin. Likud Chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu called Yishai on Sunday and asked him whether Yosef's support for Peres was a done deal. Yishai promised to get back to him with an answer but has not done so yet, Netanyahu's aides said.

Tomorrow, Likud faction chairman MK Gideon Saar is slated to meet Yosef for another discussion on the matter.

"The rabbi [Yosef] wanted Peres in the previous [presidential] election as well," Yishai said. But until Peres presented his candidacy officially, there was no point in making this preference public, he added.

Shas sources said that Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau's decision not to enter the presidential race ended the party's hesitation between Peres and Lau, and now there there were no fundamental differences in the party over whom to back.

Ever since the presidential election of 2000, in which Peres was defeated by Moshe Katsav with the help of votes from Shas MKs, Yosef has felt the need to compensate Peres, a Shas source said. Peres had been sure of Shas's support, which would have ensured his victory. However, despite Yosef's longtime friendship with Peres, he was apparently persuaded at the last moment to transfer his support to Katsav.

Shas sources said that Yosef had been determined to support Peres in 2000, but the Council of Torah Sages managed to persuade him that voting for Katsav - a Sephardi with a religious orientation, who prays every morning and eats kosher food - would be a step of historic significance.

This time, things are different, Shas people said: Yosef wants Peres, whom he admires and respects, and understands that this will be Peres's last showdown.

For this reason, there is no danger of Shas MKs defying Yosef's instructions and voting for someone else, they said. Moreover, Yosef could always call the MKs and make them swear to carry out their pledge to obey his orders - a document each Shas MK signed before being sworn in at the Knesset, the sources said.

Nevertheless, Knesset sources predicted that despite Yosef's decision, a number of Shas MKs would "defect" and vote for Rivlin.

Moreover, despite Shas's expected support, Peres still needs to secure the votes of most Kadima MKs, along with some from MKs from other parties.

A team of media and strategy advisers, including Eyal Arad, Reuven Adler, Yoram Dori, Kadima director general Yohanan Plesner and others, are working intensively to ensure Peres' election. Yesterday, they met and went over the lists of MKs who are sure to support Peres and those who are still deliberating. Finally, each adviser received a list of MKs for whom he would be responsible.

Meanwhile, Labor leadership candidate MK Ami Ayalon and his chief supporter, MK Avishai Braverman, spoke out yesterday in support of Labor's presidential candidate, MK Colette Avital.

Avital took advantage of the fact that Labor's faction meeting was broadcast live on the Knesset channel to demand that the two announce their support of her. In the past, Ayalon had expressed support in Peres' candidacy.

MK Avraham Ravitz, a member of United Torah Judaism's Degel Hatorah faction and a friend of Rivlin's, told Haaretz yesterday that Rabbi Aharon Steinman and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the two leaders of the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox community, had not decided yet on their preferred candidate for president.