Peretz Hopes New Coalition Will Last Up to One Year

If, as expected, Labor's central committee approves on Sunday staying in a coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu, the cabinet will ratify Avigdor Lieberman's inclusion in the government the following day. However, senior Labor officials who are opposed to the partnership appear determined to sabotage the move.

Labor leader and Defense Minister Amir Peretz yesterday convened his party's ministers in Tel Aviv and briefed them on the agreement he had struck with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The prime minister and Peretz met at noon yesterday and completed the negotiations that led Peretz to support Lieberman's joining the government, despite his declarations to the contrary. Peretz believes the coalition in its new format could perhaps last a year; but only if there's a political process to end the regional stalemate, he said in private conversations yesterday.

Peretz came to Olmert's bureau at noon yesterday. Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon also attended the meeting. As agreed in advance, Peretz said he would recommend to his party's central committee that it approve Labor's remaining in the government and coalition. In exchange, Labor's Knesset faction chairman, MK Ephraim Sneh, would be appointed deputy defense minister, and Peretz would head a ministerial committee for the non-Jewish communities.

After the meeting, Peretz said he and Olmert had agreed on the need to lift the freeze on pensioners and child allowances and direct funds and benefits to the Arab community.

Peretz also said it was imperative to jumpstart the peace process, and insisted on the need to deal with the illegal outposts in the territories.

The statement issued after the meeting said the government would act according to its guidelines and the coalition agreements, and that Yisrael Beiteinu's inclusion would not change or infringe on them.

It was also agreed that Peretz's powers would not be undermined and that Labor would maintain its status as senior coalition partner.

If United Torah Judaism does not enter the coalition within a reasonable period, the Social Affairs portfolio will be given to a Labor minister in exchange for another portfolio, the statement said.

Olmert intends to add UTJ to the coalition in a month, as he wishes to broaden the coalition even further.

Labor members who object to Lieberman's joining the government yesterday blasted Peretz's caving in to the move in exchange for what they called "meager" achievements.

A number of Kadima MKs were also angry. MKs who had been promised a deputy minister position demanded that Olmert keep his promise. Olmert, however, does not intend to appoint additional deputy ministers and his aides said Sneh would be the only one.

MK Danny Yatom, one of the leading opponents of the partnership with Lieberman, said yesterday that "the abyss between Labor and Yisrael Beiteinu is now bridged by a deputy minister's position."

Only five of Labor's 19 legislators signed a letter calling on the faction to oppose the inclusion of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu in the government coalition.

Only MKs Avishai Braverman, Yatom, Nadia Hilou, Shelly Yachimovich and Raleb Majedele signed the letter, despite expectations that senior Labor officials were set to join the party's declaration of opposition.

"Sitting together with Lieberman [in government] would legitimize a perception that supports the expulsion of Arabs and would legitimize Lieberman as a leader; it would harbor a Netanyahu-style economic policy and a diplomatic deadlock that could lead to a military escalation," the letter, sent to Labor's central committee members, said.