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(photo credit: AP [file])
Amir Peretz has succeeded in painting himself and the entire Labor Party into a corner. Every possible course of action seems to promise an effective end to his leadership.
If he agrees to Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu entering the coalition, he will be crucified by the left wing of his party, including most of his erstwhile allies and some of his more recent rivals. If he continues to oppose the enlargement, he will still raise the ire of a powerful minority within Labor and give additional excuses to Ehud Olmert to go behind his back, negotiating not only with other parties but also with other members of Labor, who are proving themselves increasingly independent of their leader.
On the face of it, Peretz has a valid case against inviting Lieberman and Co. into the coalition. He was promised by Olmert that he would be a central partner in setting the government's agenda, and Lieberman's platform is diametrically opposed to Peretz's; there's probably not even one item of policy that they can agree upon.
But Olmert has a powerful counterargument: Peretz can't guarantee that all his 19 MKs will vote in favor of the 2007 state budget in the upcoming Knesset session. If Peretz can't control his own rebels, Olmert has a case for looking elsewhere for parliamentary support.
But also here, Peretz can't afford to enforce coalition discipline too forcefully, or he again risks losing his rapidly eroding support base and ideological credibility. The socialist Peretz will be accused of pushing a cannibalistic budget, designed by the market-driven Treasury boys and promising more money only for the military, but less for social programs and the minimum wage. He just can't win.
But despite all this, no party leader should agree to the prime minister going behind his back and making deals with others regarding the party's future. Yet Peretz, in his current state, is powerless even to complain. As the leader of a member of the coalition, he should have at least one doomsday weapon against the prime minister: the threat of leaving the coalition and plunging the government into crisis, perhaps even precipitating a change of power or elections.
Peretz might not have even that. On top of his reluctance to resign from his post as defense minister, which would seem like an admission of guilt in the mishandling of the Lebanon war, if he were to announce tomorrow that Labor is leaving the government, he might be successfully defied by his colleagues.
A majority of Labor's ministers would probably oppose such a step, together with a number of other Labor MKs, deeply hostile to Peretz and eager to overthrow him.
Peretz is now Labor chairman in name only. Most of his members are busy making their own arrangements with Olmert, devising plans to depose him, and even his few remaining supporters are deciding their policy for themselves.