Former Israeli premier and Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres's plans to run for the nation's top job hung in the balance on Thursday, awaiting a decision of a left-wing party whose support is vital for his challenge.
The Meretz party is due to decide Thursday whether to throw its weight behind Peres, a perennial loser in Israel election battles who is nevertheless running ahead of caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak in opinion polls.
And both the Peres and Barak camps were frantically lobbying Meretz ahead of the midnight (2200 GMT) for candidates for the February 6 poll to register.
Peres, the 77-year-old former Labor leader, officially announced late Wednesday that he intends to run for the nation's top job, setting the stage for a three-way clash with Barak and ultra-nationalist Ariel Sharon.
"I have decided to be a candidate, but evidently I could not be without the support of the Meretz party," he said after a meeting with Meretz leader Yossi Sarid.
Peres needs to win the support of at least 10 MPs to be eligible. Meretz has the required number, but the party has yet to decide whether to back him.
"We will decide this afternoon," Sarid told public radio.
The ruling Labor party has already chosen Barak as its candidate.
Barak has warned that a Peres candidacy could cause a split in Israel's peace vote that would usher in Sharon, the burly ex-general reviled by the Palestinians for triggering the 12 weeks of Israeli-Palestinian violence that has left nearly 350 people dead.
Eli Goldshmidt, a member of Barak's One Israel bloc, said if Peres runs "it will be a very happy day for 'Arik' Sharon.
"If Shimon Peres is going to be a candidate it is a split inside the peace camp, the outcome will be prime minister Ariel Sharon," he told public radio.
Latest public opinion polls show Peres ahead of Barak, who is almost 20 years his junior, and in a virtual tie with Sharon.
But despite his international stature Peres has never found favor with the Israeli public and has failed to snare the prime minister's office in five previous electoral ties.
Peres, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in drafting the 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, is a champion of the idea of a "New Middle East" and a hero to Israel's peace camp.
But his approval as candidate by the Meretz party is far from a certainty.
Meretz MP Zehava Gal-On said on Wednesday that he and his colleagues were faced with a "great dilemma," with "most of the deputies genuinely hesitating" amid fears of splitting the peace camp in a poll presented by Barak as a referendum on peace.
Sharon, 72, nicknamed the "bulldozer," has been given a rare chance for a run for the top job right-wing after comeback hopeful Benjamin Netanyahu's plans of running were dashed.
Already, posters have been plastered on Israeli streets by supporters of the veteran right-wing politician, proclaiming: "Only Sharon will bring peace."
As defense minister, it was he who planned and led the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982. An official inquiry found him indirectly responsible for the massacres of up to 2,000 Palestinian refugees by Israeli-allied militias -- JERUSALEM (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)