amir peretz 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Labor Faction gave its backing on Friday afternoon to the establishment of a state commission of inquiry into the shortcomings of the war in Lebanon for which Party Chairman Amir Peretz had earlier voiced his support.
Nevertheless, the decision does not obligate Labor Ministers, three of whom oppose the establishment of such a committee.
The Labor Faction meeting opened on Friday morning with a heated exchange between Peretz and National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer regarding calls for the establishment of a state commission of inquiry into the shortcomings of the war in Lebanon.
"Why are you opening the meeting with the issue of the state commission of inquiry instead of discussing the 2007 budget," exclaimed Ben-Eliezer.
Ben-Eliezer claimed that Peretz was "zigzagging" over his stance and said that the Labor leader should have consulted with party members before declaring his support for the commission.
There was also a reported clash between MK Shalom Simhon and MK Danny Yatom. Yatom said he was pleased that it was the debate on the budget was separated form that on the commission. Simhon became incensed and accused Yatom of hypocrisy since he had rallied support for the state commission. Yatom reacted harshly and Simhon angrily left the meeting.
Peretz's decision puts him in the opposition to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plan, which calls for two commissions of inquiry and avoids the broader investigation a state commission would conduct.
"I will be willing to stand before any type of inquiry into my conduct during the war," said Peretz. "In this war there were uncovered various failures on a number of levels, we need to check and investigate them without compromise."
Sources close to the prime minister said that he was surprised by Peretz's decision and added that it was likely to create a crises over Labor's inclusion in the coalition.
"It is unclear that this will be the straw that breaks the coalition," said one source in the prime minister's office. "But the strain is certainly building."
Sources close to Peretz, meanwhile, said he hoped that his decision would not bring an end to his relationship with Olmert.
"He does not feel that this should be enough to oust Labor from the coalition," said an aide close to Peretz. "He hopes to remain in the coalition, and hold onto his position as defense minister, for the foreseeable future."
Since Olmert announced his plan Monday night, Peretz has see-sawed between falling in line with the prime minister or breaking rank to join the majority of his Labor Party MKs, who have long-called for a state commission. A state commission of inquiry provides the most stringent forum for investigating the conduct of state authorities. It is headed by a Justice and has the authority to summon witnesses, and dismiss top officials if it deems fit.
Peretz's decision did not bode well for the coalition, which was already on shaky ground following the refusal of three Labor MKs to support the government's demands for cuts in the 2006 budget.
"The Labor party has once again proved its failure to be a dedicated, reliable member of the coalition," said Coalition Chairman MK Avigdor Yitzhaki (Kadima). "It proves the need to expand the coalition."
Likud, Israel Beitenu, NU-NRP, and Shas have all been proposed as possible coalition partners, although they would each require that the coalition agreement be re-written to present a more right-wing platform.
The crises over whether to bring in those parties was likely to occur following the next cabinet meeting, where ministers would voice their stance on Olmert's plan for the inquiry commissions, said sources in the prime minister's office.
In the next cabinet meeting, Peretz will join Labor Ministers Ophir Paz-Pines and Eitan Cabel to vote against Olmert's inquiry commissions. It appeared likely that Education Minister Yuli Tamir, a longtime ally of Peretz, would also vote with the three.
"Even if they all vote against Olmert's plan it will still have a majority to pass," said one Kadima Minister. "They are just doing it for the mediaâ€¦ in the end they are severely jeopardizing their relationship with Olmert too."
Labor Ministers Isaac Herzog, Shalom Simchon, and Binyamin Ben-Eleizer said, however, that they still felt that Olmert's plan was appropriate, and they did not feel that it a state commission of inquiry should be called for at this time.
"They will listen and weigh what their fellow Labor Members say, but it unlikely they will change their minds," said a spokeswoman for Herzog.
On Friday morning, Labor MKs will meet at the party's Tel Aviv headquarters to discuss the party's position on the inquiry. Two-thirds of the party's 19 MKs have voiced support for the state commission of inquiry, calling Olmert's plan a "fig leaf" and a joke.
"There is widespread sentiment in the party that Olmert has gone too far with his inquiry plan and failed to take the opportunity to earn the public's trust with a real state commission of inquiry," said a senior Labor Member. "If Peretz had not joined the party's mood on thisâ€¦ his leadership would have been in serious jeopardy."
Peretz's position as chairman has been challenged by a number of MKs, most recently MKs Ami Ayalon and Avishay Braverman who announced they were joining together to run for the party leadership. At present time, March appears to be the earliest date that a Labor Party Primary could be held and Peretz officially challenged.
"We will decide between us who will be number one and who will be number two. We represent different politics and we will bring a change to the Labor party," Ayalon said Wednesday.
On Thursday, a poll released by Kol Israel showed Braverman beating Peretz for the part's leadership, with Braverman receiving 43 percent of the votes and Peretz 32%.
"There is no doubt that the Chairman's position in the party will swing on how he acts over the coming week," said MK Ophir Paz-Pines.