Aides: Peretz Has No Intention of Dropping Out of Labor Primaries

Labor Chairman's associates say leading candidates Barak, Ayalon behind rumors Peretz intends to quit race.

Defense Minister and Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz does not intend to withdraw from his party's upcoming leadership primary, despite his poor standing in the polls, Peretz's associates said Monday.

They accused associates of the two leading candidates, Ehud Barak and MK Ami Ayalon, of being behind the rumors that Peretz was seeking to join up with one of them and dismissed these rumors as "transparent spin."

Peretz's associates were responding to the first polls of Labor members based on the party's new membership rolls. In one, commissioned by Haaretz, Barak led with 25 percent, followed by Ayalon with 23 percent, Peretz (19 percent), MK Ophir Pines-Paz (15 percent) and MK Danny Yatom (5 percent).

All the candidates, including Yatom, vowed Monday to stay in the race. The vote is scheduled for May 28.

Barak, who has maintained media silence for the past few months, plans to break this silence soon, but his advisors are still debating time and place, and he may wait until after the Winograd Committee, which is investigating last summer's war in Lebanon, publishes its interim conclusions toward the end of the month.

Meanwhile, he is holding daily meetings with party activists nationwide; he also plans to make personal telephone calls to a few dozens voters a day from now until the primary.

Barak's staff said Monday that he will not wage a negative campaign and will not attack his chief rival, Ayalon. The former prime and defense minister is focusing his campaign on his suitability for Peretz's current job of defense minister, and his staff hopes that the Winograd Committee's conclusions will underscore the need for someone with experience in this position, thereby giving him a boost over Ayalon.

Associates of Ayalon, who is also maintaining a heavy schedule of campaign meetings, dismissed the survey results Monday, noting that "the important poll is the one at the ballot box." They added that the race is not for the Defense Ministry, but for the candidate with the best chance of returning Labor to power.

Peretz's staff said that they were actually pleased with his third-place position, as this will encourage Barak and Ayalon to concentrate on each other rather than focusing their fire on him. Peretz, added one, "always loses in the polls but wins at the ballot box. He also has the best organization, and on election day, that is decisive."