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(photo credit: Associated Press)
"I've never agreed to be a minister, because I wasn't prepared to give up on my principles." That was one of the standard phrases employed by Amir Peretz on the campaign trail barely two months ago, in an attempt to transform the disadvantage of his ministerial inexperience into an image of trustworthiness.
Well now he's a minister - with the biggest portfolio in the cabinet - and after a month on the job he's already homesick for his days as a carefree firebrand without the trappings and responsibilities of office. His advisers have been grumbling that Ehud Olmert is doing everything possible to make him look bad, but right now it looks as if Peretz is doing a great job of it on his own.
Whether or not it was a smart move to accept the Defense Ministry, it's too late to reconsider. More than anything else, he needs a few months of political calm in which to prove to a skeptical electorate, and more urgently to a hostile Labor Party, that they are safe in his hands. Instead, he's gone and precipitated a premature cabinet crisis.
At some stage, Peretz must have realized that the abstention of the seven Labor ministers on Tuesday's budget vote would look pathetic, but he just couldn't help himself. Never mind that a much larger cut in the defense budget than the NIS 500m. authorized Tuesday was a central part of Labor's elections platform and that Peretz seems to have forsaken his social agenda for his new role as the unlikely guardian of the IDF fiefdom. More than anything else, Peretz is bolstering his image as someone who can't be relied upon as a legitimate partner in power. His complaints that Olmert failed to give him fair warning of the impending cut have merit, but Peretz has to work on his timing.
After an at best mediocre showing in the elections, he has to work on consolidating his position within his party if he wants to lead it into the next elections. He's constantly fighting on three fronts: defending his leadership from his enemies within Labor, competing with his partner/rival Olmert and holding his own against the generals in the Defense Ministry.
The other Labor leaders aren't about to give him any peace. No sooner had the Labor ministers abstained when Matan Vilna'i came out with his criticism of "the attempt to turn the debate [over the defense budget] into a political one." Vilna'i is the most outspoken of the Labor rebels, but far from the only one.
Peretz not only has to worry about his old opponents, he now must watch his back for attacks from supporters who are beginning to grumble about the way he's suddenly turned his priorities around. And he can't expect much peace or leisure time in his new job either.
Peretz can't take on the Labor malcontents, the IDF General Staff and Ehud Olmert all at once. He was aware of this Tuesday and went into a rather humiliating peace-making meeting with Olmert straight after the cabinet vote. It's the only front where he can try and achieve a degree of calm in the near term. Peretz needs a period of coalition stability if he's to have any chance of coming to grips with the military and keeping his Labor challengers at bay.
The right opportunity to split the coalition will come sooner or later, but right now, Peretz needs to prove himself a responsible member of the cabinet to have any chance of long-term political survival. His handling of his first budget crisis, however, casts serious doubt as to whether he's capable of that.