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Labor leadership candidate Ehud Barak threatened Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday, warning him that if he did not quit the premiership before the release of the final Winograd Report, Labor under Barak will leave the coalition.
"When the Labor central committee meets after [Tuesday's second round of the party] primary, I will present a proposal calling for Olmert to draw personal conclusions and quit due to the difficult conclusions of the interim Winograd Report," Barak said. "If he doesn't do this by the release of the full report, we will have to end our partnership with Olmert and try to form a new government with the current Knesset or to set a date for elections."
Barak issued the threat in order to receive an endorsement from defeated Labor candidate MK Ophir Paz-Pines in the runoff race. Barak did not rule out joining Olmert's government and serving as defense minister until the release of the report, which had been expected this summer but has now been delayed until at least October. If the committee sends Olmert a warning letter, the report's release could be delayed to next year.
Olmert's associates said they were pleased with Barak's statement, because they interpreted it to mean that they could have him as defense minister for at least a few months, if he won the race against MK Ami Ayalon. They expressed skepticism that Barak would keep his promise to leave the government after that.
Barak's rivals pointed out that he had actually taken a step backward from his May 8 commitment at Kibbutz Sdot Yam to start working the day after the primary was resolved "to reach a wide consensus in my party and among faction heads on an election date." But Paz-Pines said he was pleased that he had persuaded Barak to set a deadline for Labor to leave the government.
"I forced Barak, against the will of the ministers who back him, to make a decision that is very dangerous for him, which he wouldn't have done if I hadn't pushed him into a corner," Paz-Pines told The Jerusalem Post.
Asked how he could endorse a candidate with Barak's reputation after running a campaign based on clean government, Paz-Pines said: "There were no saints to choose from. I can't join a monastery. I couldn't back Ayalon after he made a deal with [outgoing Labor Chairman] Amir Peretz, who didn't get a single clean vote in the primary."
Ayalon's campaign responded that Paz-Pines had made a mistake in remaining in the race until the end, thereby forcing the runoff, and that he made another mistake by endorsing Barak in return for an empty promise that was nothing more than a "cosmetic change" to his Sdot Yam speech.
The deal between Barak and Paz-Pines was reached after the two men met Tuesday night until 3 a.m. and finalized it through the mediation of Barak's close ally, National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.
In a joint press conference at Labor's Tel Aviv headquarters, Barak praised Paz-Pines for making a "courageous decision" and called him "an important leader who had built an image of integrity, consistency and public responsibility in his fight for good governance and the rule of law." Barak declined to answer questions.
Paz-Pines said at the press conference that he felt the need to endorse a candidate in the runoff and that Ayalon had disappointed him by not agreeing to set a deadline for Labor to quit the coalition.
Sitting next to Barak, Paz-Pines criticized him for his silence during the campaign, but said his commitment to topple Olmert overrode everything else.
"I know that Barak realizes that Olmert has to go, and now he will now have to go no later than October," Paz-Pines said. "A government that's a lame duck cannot do anything on diplomatic issues, and Ehud Barak knows it."
The Ayalon campaign released a list of top Paz-Pines supporters who are supporting Ayalon and another list of recent quotes from Paz-Pines slamming Barak, including one accusing him of "trying to abuse voters using scare tactics and threats."
Paz-Pines said he would welcome his political loyalists supporting either candidate.
Guy Spigelman, an Australian-born Labor central committee member, said he shifted his support from Paz-Pines to Barak because Ayalon "has not proven that he can move things in politics and Barak has a much better chance to succeed for the party and the country."
"Our experiments with inexperienced leaders hasn't been successful," Spigelman said. "Maybe [supporting Barak] is pragmatic and not idealistic, but idealism without the ability to implement the ideology is not worthwhile."
Ayalon and Barak both addressed a gathering of kibbutz leaders at Ramat Efal on Wednesday. Ayalon was heckled by kibbutzniks for his deal with Peretz, while one member of the crowd accused Barak of "screwing over Sephardi Jews."