MK Shimon Peres dispelled the fog surrounding his support for Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying during a conference in Jerusalem, "Olmert is interim prime minister and I support him fully and faithfully."
Peres was speaking at a conference in Jerusalem. Later, in a CNN interview, he said with near certainty he would run on Kadima's Knesset list, explicitly calling on his voters to vote Kadima. "I call on my supporters to vote for peace, and consequently for Kadima," he said.
Peres has been subject to criticism for not clearly stating his political intentions following Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke last week and speculations on his political future. On Sunday, however, he expressed his full support for Sharon's decision to appoint Olmert as his deputy.
"It was a smart and correct move, and Olmert is not only fitting, but also a friend. Even if Sharon doesn't return to the premiership, Olmert will continue in his place and I will support him," Peres said.
In response to questions about his future political aspirations, Peres told CNN, "I do not want to be prime minister. I want to work for peace."
Peres showered praise on Kadima and said that the new party is made up of people who have tired of acting within old party frameworks and insisting it is responsible for the public's wide support for the peace process.
Earlier Sunday morning, Peres voiced support for the first time for Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, telling Israel Radio that he would offer him all the help that he needed.
The former prime minister, who quit Labor after his defeat by Amir Peretz in the leadership race, told the radio that the decision to make Olmert acting prime minister was the correct one.
Peres was criticized earlier Sunday by a Kadima minister for playing the political field. "Peres is trying to raise his price. He is making as if he is in Olmert's pocket, and Peretz is begging him to return," the minister said.
Olmert and Peres met Friday, but at the end of the meeting Peres refused to state decisively whether he would be staying in the party.
But Kadima members said Peres will be among the top five on the Knesset list, and that he will be named minister in the coming round of appointments, as Sharon had planned.
The interim prime minister was set Sunday to conduct his first cabinet meeting and hold his first press conference since Sharon's hospitalization last Wednesday night. Some sources said that one of his first tasks would be to keep Peres in Kadima.
A senior Labor MK said Sunday morning, however, that he believes that Labor now has an opportunity to bring Peres back to the party. According to the lawmaker, Labor Chairman Amir Peretz is interested in Peres' return both to the party and its leadership, along with former prime minister Ehud Barak.
The MK said Peretz is even prepared to ensure spots on the party's Knesset list for the two in order to lure them back.
Olmert is expected to meet with Barak in the coming days, Israel Radio reported Sunday. The two are scheduled to discuss matters pertaining to the security situation.
Aides to Barak told Israel Radio on Sunday that the meeting is not of a political nature but rather one of a former prime minister seeking an update on affairs of the state from an acting prime minister.
Barak himself also expressed support for Olmert's leadership. "Ehud Olmert is a worthy replacement for Ariel Sharon," Barak told an interviewer for the British Sky News channel on Sunday afternoon.
"He doesn't have the aura of a warrior, but ... he's a very shrewd person ... he has a lot of experience and he's held a lot of ministerial portfolios," Barak continued.
Sources in Kadima over the weekend said Olmert would not try to bring in Barak, who is considered close to Olmert, although it was suggested that Dan Meridor might join the list.
Olmert is to meet with Peres again over the next few days, and an open channel of communication is being maintained with Peres' allies, MKs Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik. Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, meanwhile, is said to have assured Olmert he intends to remain in Kadima, and Olmert appointed Hanegbi in his stead as chairman of the Kadima election campaign.
Olmert, who is said to have the backing of all senior Kadima members as Sharon's replacement, has been advised to make sure Peres stays with Kadima so as to avoid an atmosphere of erosion of the party in a post-Sharon era.
However following a meeting with Olmert on Friday, Peres did not say specifically he would be remaining with the party, which angered senior Kadima figures.
"Peres is trying to drive up his market value," said a minister from Kadima. "He is creating an atmosphere as if he isn't in Olmert's pocket and that Peretz is begging him to come back, but Olmert also has nerves of steel and he won't promise [Peres] something beyond what Sharon promised him."
It seems likely that Olmert will be elected Kadima chairman, although it is unclear whether all faction members will agree that Olmert has the authority to determine the Knesset slate. Sharon let his wishes on the matter be known to his son Omri and cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon.
Sources in Kadima said Olmert does not have to worry that Peres will try to take his place as Sharon's successor since the move would not pass in the Kadima Knesset faction.
Sources in Labor remarked that this was the state of affairs that Peres likes best. "He is being courted, the polls are in his favor, and the sky's the limit. But it doesn't look like Peres wants to come back to Labor."
In response, Peres' advisors said yesterday that it was clear someone in Kadima was battling Peres. "Someone there is under pressure; it's underhand and unfair. Peres is not negotiating with anyone and he does not appoint heirs to Sharon. There are some people in Kadima who are doing just that, and Peres is having no part in it."
Ramon said over the weekend that he also believed Peres would stay in Kadima.
Sharon consultants Lior Horev and Eyal Arad met with Olmert on Friday before his meeting with Peres and agreed on work procedure.