(photo credit: AP)
There was little rest this weekend for Labor Party members, who held a series of back-room meetings to draw their battle plans for the upcoming fight over the party leadership.
More than half of the 19 serving Labor Knesset members see themselves as potential candidates for the party leadership, said one current Labor minister.
"Everyone is looking over their shoulder, trying to form partnerships, trying to get ahead; the party is entering a dangerous time," said the minister.
The opening shots of what many are calling Peretz's battle for the party leadership were fired on Friday, when the Labor Party convened for a fiery faction meeting over the future of the 2007 budget and the party's stance on a war commission.
Peretz had remained vague on both of those issues in order to preserve his relationship with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. On Thursday, however, Peretz set himself at odds with Olmert by announcing he would support a state commission of inquiry, which has more power than the two inquiry committees that Olmert supports.
Peretz's aides predicted that his backing of a state commission of inquiry would not lead to a coalition crisis, but acknowledged that Olmert would not be pleased.
"Olmert needs Peretz," said one aide. "He does not want to rock the coalition and needs time to rebuild his own power base. If he wants his coalition to last, he'd better concede to Peretz on budget issues."
That process may begin as early as Sunday, when Peretz is scheduled to meet with Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson to discuss the Finance Ministry's objections to the budget submitted by the Defense Ministry, which totals NIS 33.5 billion. According to the Finance Ministry, the majority of the defense budget - some NIS 20b. - is allocated to salaries, pensions and rehabilitation for IDF personnel.
"Peretz can't do bothâ€¦ he can't call for the social programs and then go and meet with the Finance Ministry and demand more money for the army," said one MK who has voiced strong opposition to Peretz.
Peretz's decision aligned the chairman with Labor Ministers Eitan Cabel and Ophir Paz-Pines. The most outspoken adversaries to Peretz - MKs Ami Ayalon, Avishay Braverman, Danny Yatom and Matan Vilna'i - have also been strong advocates of a state commission of inquiry.
Peretz, however, angered several other ministers, most notably Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who had supported Olmert's decision and accused Peretz of "zigzagging" over his stance on the war.
"Why are you opening the meeting with the issue of the state commission of inquiry instead of discussing the 2007 budget?" asked Ben-Eliezer.
The issue of the budget will be where Labor Party rebels make their play for the party leadership, and where Peretz would have to prove his strength as a leader, said one Labor MK with strong ties to Peretz.
"Peretz will not let one of the rebels become the 'social leader,' that is a title he has earned," said the MK.
During Friday's meeting, Peretz showed signs of gearing up for a fight over the budget.
"Labor must return to its roots and deal with the issues for which it was sent to the Knesset," Peretz told the Labor members. The Labor Party based its election campaign on the promise of a socioeconomic revolution and a collection of social welfare programs.
During the meeting, Peretz promised the party that he would demand a budget draft from the Finance Ministry that he would then review with the party.
Many of the party members are demanding major revisions to the current budget that would shift funds to social welfare programs. Most of those funds, however, would come at the expense of the defense budget, putting Peretz at odds with his allegiance to the Defense Ministry.
During the meeting Friday, there was also a reported clash between MK Shalom Simhon and MK Danny Yatom. Yatom said he was pleased that the debate on the budget was separate from 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.