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Defense Minister Amir Peretz declared yesterday he intends to lay claim to the Finance Ministry following the elections for the Labor party leadership scheduled in late May.

Addressing hundreds of supporters at a political rally at Labor headquarters, Peretz said that whoever votes for him "bolsters our effort to take the Finance Ministry."

"The night I am elected a new to the post of Labor chairman I will inform the Prime Minister that I intend to renegotiate the coalition agreement and to demand the [Finance] Ministry."

The declaration is meant to boost the Peretz campaign by suggesting he is stressing the social agenda that he traditionally espouses.

Peretz announced that by the time the primaries are held on May 28, he intends to complete the tasks he has undertaken at the Defense Ministry.

Even though pundits believe that Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson will resign due to police investigations and allegations of corruption, it is not expected that Peretz will immediately demand the portfolio.

The announcement by the Labor leader left sources at the Prime Minister's bureau unimpressed.

"We are not busy replacing the Finance Ministry," they said, adding that various candidates for the Labor leadership, including former Prime Minister Ehud Barak who vowed to demand both Defense and Justice if he wins, are making claims "to which we have no comment."

Pines-Paz: Too little, too late

Responding to the Peretz declarations last night, MK Ophir Pines-Paz, also running for the party leadership, said "it is a little too little too late, and more importantly, it is irrelevant. The Olmert government lacks direction, and it must be replaced, not bargained with."

Peretz gathered his followers yesterday for a Passover holiday toast, and used the forum to make a long speech, more than an hour, in which he accused the Labor ministers of undermining him. He also maintained that he is the victim of character assassination, and sought to explain the reasons for which he gave up on the treasury after the elections last year.

The former head of the Histadrut Labor Federation said he will continue to fight for a social agenda, even if he loses the leadership of the party.

Among the senior party officials attending the event were ministers Yuli Tamir and Ghaleb Majadele, and MKs Yoram Marciano and Nadia Hilou. MK Shelly Yachimovich also attended the event for a short time.

Meanwhile, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, will announce officially tomorrow that he is backing MK Ami Ayalon for the Labor leadership.

In recent months Huldai met on a number of occasions with Ayalon. In his view only Ayalon has the personal integrity to save the party from further deterioration.

In Tel Aviv there are 65,000 registered Labor members, and the Ayalon campaign headquarters believe that with the support of Huldai, large segments of local party members will support his candidacy.

In the past, Huldai supported former party chairman, Amram Mitzna, but for years has avoided becoming entangled in internal party politics.