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Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced in a press conference with former prime minister Shimon Peres on Sunday that he had offered Peres "any job he wanted" in his next government.
Sharon's statement led to questions in the press conference about whether Peres could return to the Foreign Ministry. But Sharon's associates made clear after the event that Sharon and Peres had already agreed on Peres's role in the next government.
Peres would return to the Vice Prime Minister's office, which last week was temporarily renamed the "office on Negev and Galilee development" and is still run by Peres's aides. His title has yet to be decided, but he will be responsible for regional development projects with Jordan and Egypt and the economic development of the Gaza Strip.
Sharon said at the Prime Minister's Office that he promised Peres that he would be "a full partner in the decision-making on the diplomatic process." But Sharon's associates said that does not mean that Peres would be involved in key negotiations with the Palestinians over issues like where the border in the West Bank will be, which will be led by Sharon himself.
"Peres can succeed at any position," Sharon said. "It doesn't matter what job he'll have." He joked that Peres could even replace him as prime minister after he retires.
Peres said he felt an obligation to join Sharon in order to advance the peace process.
"This is an opportunity I couldn't pass up," Peres said. "I wouldn't have forgiven myself for not taking this offer from Sharon. Whether or not it was comfortable [to leave Labor] is no excuse. I don't need to ask forgiveness from anyone and I don't blame anyone."
When asked whether he left Labor because he could not remain in a party led by Labor chairman Amir Peretz, Peres said that he would not say anything about Peretz or any of his former colleagues in Labor during the campaign. "I don't want to talk about the past and I don't want to say bad things about anyone," Peres said. "I am not looking back. I don't want to become a pillar of salt."
Sharon followed his usual strategy of deflecting any tough questions with humor. Asked whether he was concerned that Peres might "drag Kadima to the Left," Sharon poked fun at the difference in size between him and Peres.
"Look at us - he can't drag me," Sharon answered, then said to Peres, "Sorry, I didn't mean to make fun of your physical condition."
MKs from across the political spectrum attacked Sharon and Peres after the press conference. Meretz MK Ran Cohen accused Sharon of illegally using the Prime Minister's Office for a political press conference.
Likud MK Michael Eitan asked Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz whether it was legal to hold the event there. Mazuz allowed the event and gave Sharon further guidelines on how to avoid illegal use of his office.
Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu responded that "Peres hasn't joined Sharon, Sharon has joined Peres." He said that "Peres hasn't given up an inch of his principles on withdrawing to almost-1967 lines."
Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines said that "it is unfortunate that Peres decided to join Sharon's one-hit wonder instead of remaining loyal to his party, his path and hundreds of thousands of people who worked for him over the last few decades."