Olmert Repeatedly Banned Peretz From Meeting Abbas

PM: No one will meet Abbas before me; Olmert, Peretz feuding over who will lead cease-fire efforts.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has on a number of occasions rejected requests Defense Minister Amir Peretz to hold talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, on the grounds that "no one will meet Abbas before me."

Peretz again asked to meet with the Abbas recently, due to the delays in setting up a meeting between the PA chairman and the prime minister. Peretz's request was denied by Olmert.

A dispute erupted between the prime minister and defense minister Sunday, following a telephone conversation between Peretz and Abbas in which Peretz implored Abbas to act against Qassam rocket fire on Israeli communities bordering the Gaza Strip.

Sources in the Prime Minister's Office accused Peretz of using what they called a meaningless conversation with Abbas to create the impression in the media that Olmert is torpedoing a step aimed at halting the rocket fire.

The confrontation began following Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting, after which Peretz asked Olmert for an urgent meeting and told him of his conversation with Abbas.

"Abu Mazen [Abbas] called me and told me he is going to convene all the Palestinian factions and declare a cease-fire," Peretz told the prime minister. "Should they declare a cease-fire, they want us to do the same."

Olmert asked Peretz not to intervene on the issue, saying his senior aides, Yoram Turbovitz and Shalom Turjeman, had already scheduled a Wednesday meeting with their Palestinian counterparts Saeb Erekat and Rafik Husseini.

"We are taking care of it," Olmert told Peretz. "You don't declare a cease-fire in five minutes. We need to discuss it with the foreign minister. Let's talk about it in an organized manner."

This reportedly infuriated the defense minister, who responded "I am not the assassination minister! I am the only one who should talk about the cease-fire, I am not responsible just for the level of fire!"

The Prime Minister's Office believed the dispute had ended once they received an apology from Peretz's aides.

"Abu Mazen called, what should we have done?" said the aides. "Refuse to take the call? In any event we don't need to do anything, because Abu Mazen asked Israel not to act before he secures the cease-fire."

However, while the prime minister's aides and the defense minister's aides were speaking, PA officials called the Prime Minister's Office and said: "Peretz called and said he needs to speak with Abu Mazen urgently. He asked him to meet with a group of rabbis, and said the situation in Sderot is problematic and the Qassam fire cannot continue."

According to defense establishment sources, Hadash MK Mohammed Barakeh sought out Peretz during the cabinet meeting, and left him a message that Abbas would like to speak with him. The two subsequently spoke following the cabinet meeting.

Peretz spoke with Abbas about the ongoing rocket fire, and told him that one of his bodyguards, Maor Peretz, was seriously injured Wednesday by a Qassam rocket.

Abbas told Peretz that he had heard of the incident, and told him of his intentions to convene the Palestinian factions in order to declare a cease-fire.

"For this we need reciprocity from the Israeli side," Abbas said.

Abbas also offered to begin what he called a "security dialogue" with Israel, which would be carried out by an official appointed by Abbas.

"Decide what you will, we will study it and I will speak with the prime minister," Peretz said.

Peretz also raised the issue of arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip, to which Abbas responded: "I would like to deal with this as well."

The defense minister also raised a request made by a group of rabbis, headed by Tekoa Rabbi Menachem Fruman, to visit Gaza in the context of interfaith dialogue. The defense establishment opposes the visit, due to concerns for the rabbis' safety. Abbas said he would not be able to meet with the rabbis due to scheduling conflicts.

The Defense Minister's Office released a statement Sunday afternoon, saying Peretz had spoken with Abbas and demanded he use his authority to prevent Qassam fire.