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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suspended yesterday's cabinet meeting for several minutes after Defense Minister Amir Peretz accused him of behaving like an autocrat.

"Olmert acts like an autocrat, but this is neither an autocracy nor a tyranny," Peretz said.

The comments came after Olmert refused to let Peretz speak during a discussion of the non-payment of salaries in the local authorities, saying the matter did not fall within his jurisdiction.

"You have to wait patiently," Olmert said. Several ministers said Peretz asked angrily, "What are we doing here if you don't let us make comments?" Olmert told Peretz to calm down and suspended the meeting.

Several ministers described the mutual recriminations as one of the most disgraceful incidents to take place in the cabinet in recent years.

"The relationship between the prime minister and the defense minister has become intolerable," said Minister Eitan Cabel (Labor). "It can't be that two people who are meant to lead the country behave in an embarrassing way."

Meanwhile, Ofer Eini, Peretz's successor as Histadrut chairman, publicly criticized the defense minister for the first time yesterday, saying that Peretz should have gotten involved earlier.

According to the Histadrut, 33 local authorities - almost all in Arab communities - and 18 religious councils are withholding the full or partial wages of some 5,000 workers.

"I regret that the chairman of the Labor Party did not get involved a few months ago in the crisis of the non-payment in the local authorities and religious councils," said Eini. "Had he done so, he could have prevented the strike that broke out at the end of November 2006, and perhaps we would not have reached the present crisis."

Eini said yesterday that the public sector would strike on March 21, following last week's postponement of the planned strike, if no solution is found to the crisis. He responded positively, if somewhat skeptically, to Olmert's statement yesterday that the delays in payment would be resolved within a few days.

"I want to believe that Olmert will stand by his comments, but we must also take into account that matters will develop otherwise and the situation will worsen," Eini said. "We very much hope that on the 21st of the month we won't need to strike again."

At the beginning of the cabinet meeting, Olmert said the matter of workers not being paid was "an elementary humanitarian problem."

"Local authority employees whose salaries were held back are not civil servants, but employees of the local authorities," Olmert said. "However, there is no way for us to accept the fact that people who worked do not receive a fitting solution to the problem of their wages. This is an elementary humanitarian problem that cannot be accepted."