Peretz Splits With Olmert, Backs State Probe on War

Defense Minister Amir Peretz set himself at odds with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday by saying that he would back a state commission of inquiry into the Lebanon war.

Peretz, giving in to increasing pressure in his Labor Party, plans to tell the party's faction meeting this morning that he will join party rebels and others demanding a state commission of inquiry.

Olmert and Peretz met yesterday to discuss the matter, but reached no agreement.

In a bid to save his crumbling leadership in Labor and his image as an advocate of social causes, Peretz is also preparing an aggressive campaign to increase funding for these issues in the 2007 budget, even if this leads to a coalition crisis.

Labor sources explained that Peretz is in the midst of a survival battle and would not let fellow Labor MK Avishay Braverman become the "social leader" at his expense.

Peretz's confidants predicted that his backing for a state commission of inquiry would not lead to a coalition crisis, but admitted that Olmert would not be pleased. "Peretz is paying a high price for this partnership. He wanted to be finance minister, his position among his voters was compromised, and now there is no pullout from the West Bank either," said one Peretz associate. "For 20 years he has built himself up as a man of peace and social causes, and he will not give this up."

"Olmert needs Peretz," the associate continued. "He does not want to rock the coalition and needs time to rehabilitate himself. If he wants his coalition to last, he'd better concede to Peretz on budget issues."

Because of his support for a state commission of inquiry, Peretz intends to vote against Olmert's proposal to set up a government-appointed committee to examine the government's conduct of and preparations for the war. Olmert plans to present his proposal for the cabinet's approval on Wednesday.

But despite Peretz's opposition, Olmert's proposed committee, to be headed by former Mossad chief Nahum Admoni, is expected to pass easily, with 21 ministers voting in favor. Only four Labor ministers - Peretz, Ophir Pines-Paz, Eitan Cabel and Yuli Tamir - are expected to vote against. Labor ministers Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Isaac Herzog and Shalom Simhon said yesterday that they would support Olmert's proposal in the cabinet.

Senior members of Olmert's Kadima party said it was a pity that Peretz had caved in to political pressure.

Senior Labor sources also lashed out at Peretz. "Peretz is heading toward his political end, and after zigzagging with the inquiry committees, he is displaying weakness with regard to the rebels, giving in to them and playing into their hands," said one. "This will lead to Labor's quitting the government, which could bring about the downfall of both Peretz and the party."

A government source said yesterday that the final draft of the Admoni Committee's letter of appointment will be ready by Wednesday, when the weekly cabinet meeting will be held. The meeting is being postponed from Sunday because Olmert and Tamir will be busy with events opening the new school year.

According a report by Channel 2 television, based on a draft sent to members of the Admoni Committee, its mandate will be as follows:

* To investigate the government's conduct of all aspects relevant to the war.

* To examine successive governments' conduct during the years preceding the war, during which Hezbollah built up its strength in southern Lebanon. This specifically means the Barak and Sharon governments.

* To present its findings to the government, including its conclusions and recommendations, as soon as possible. It will be asked to present both an interim report and a final report.

In addition to the Admoni Committee, all six subcommittees of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee plan to study the lessons of the Lebanon War. At a meeting of the six subcommittee heads on Wednesday, it was decided that each would examine aspects of the war that fall within its area of specialization.

The six subcommittees are Intelligence and Secret Services, Israel Defense Forces Manpower; IDF Defense Doctrine and Force Building; Home Front Preparedness; External Relations and Information; and Preparedness and Routine Security.

Each subcommittee will operate independently and invite the relevant parties from the defense establishment and the government to appear. When they have finished their work, the committees will present an overall report on the lessons and conclusions of their probe to the Knesset plenum.

MK Tzachi Hanegbi, who chairs the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Haaretz yesterday that he estimates the subcommittees' work will last several months.

Before the subcommittees begin their inquiries, the committee will hold interviews with reservists who served in the war. It plans to publish an invitation to the soldiers in the press and to hear their views in designated locations in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Be'er Sheva, in addition to the Knesset.