Peres Campaign Staff Makes Final Effort to Sew Up Victory

Current drive aimed at persuading Lieberman, chairman of , to allow Yisrael Beiteinu representatives to vote independently.

Vice Premier Shimon Peres's campaign staff for the presidential election met at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem Sunday to discuss which MKs will support the Kadima candidate in the vote and how to persuade those who are still wavering.

The meeting included renowned advertising executive and campaign strategist Reuven Adler, former MK Efi Oshaya and the deputy director of manpower in the vice premier's office, Yona Bartal. Also attending was the candidate himself, who, unlike in the past, has taken it upon himself to be involved in every detail of the campaign.

On paper, Peres's victory seems certain, the strategists discovered as they correlated information and discussed the individual MKs. The support of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party, is especially encouraging. But Peres and his associates want a broad margin for error, as insurance against last-minute defectors.

The current drive is aimed at persuading Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, to allow the party's representatives to vote their conscience, instead of voting as a unified political bloc. Peres's campaign staff noted that this permission need not be made public, as long as the MKs in question are kept in the loop.

Peres's team lists MK Eli Aflalo (Kadima) as a supporter of the competition - MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) - or at best as a floating vote. Aflalo has held a grudge against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ever since his projected nomination as the head of the Jewish Agency's Settlement Division foundered a few months ago, and since then, he has been behaving like a rebel. Over the next few days, he will be cuddled and stroked in the hope of appeasing him.

The gap between the number of votes that Peres and Rivlin receive in the first round will be determined by the number of votes that Peres manages to filch from Labor MKs. Kadima sees seven defectors voting for Peres instead of the Labor Party's candidate, MK Colette Avital. A Labor official told Haaretz that this figure could be accurate. Avital's staff is certain that the number will not exceed three.

But Peres's people are no longer trying to convince Avital to withdraw her candidacy. "The more we pressured her, the more she dug in her heels," one Peres adviser explained.

At least two Arab parties - Hadash and Balad (the National Democratic Alliance) - are considering abstaining from the vote entirely or, alternatively, abstaining if Rivlin and Peres turn out to be the candidates in the runoff. This would compromise Peres's chances.

A senior Arab MK told Haaretz that Kadima did not try to negotiate with his party. "They are very arrogant. They could have secured 10 more votes," he said.

In return for their support, the Arab parties are demanding that all pending bills against Arab MKs - a backlash from the treason investigation against Azmi Bishara - be thwarted.

The three presidential candidates are in for a very busy schedule as they trudge from one party to another, Arab parties included, trying to secure their support.

Hadash is believed to support Avital in the first round, and in the second round, it will either support Peres or abstain. Raam-Ta'al will meet with both Peres and Rivlin tomorrow to ascertain their stances on a possible prisoner exchange with the Palestinians. But both these Arab parties have Rivlin supporters who might vote for him despite party policy.

The Pensioners Party will meet Rivlin today, but it is expected to decide to vote for Peres. The fact that Peres is the older candidate could be a consideration. As in other parties, however, there is no guarantee that defectors will not vote for the rival candidate.