(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert received some political breathing space from former prime minister Ehud Barak on Sunday when the Labor candidate's associates revealed that he would prevent his party's central committee from voting to leave Olmert's coalition when it convenes in Tel Aviv next Sunday.
Olmert's aides had expressed concern that Labor could bolt the coalition and topple the government ahead of the May 28 Labor primary.
The Labor parley was seen as the most imminent serious threat to Olmert's tenure after the prime minister's dispute with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was put on a back burner in a meeting between the two on Sunday.
Barak's political camp will propose a motion at the meeting to postpone any decision on leaving Olmert's coalition until after the June 11 run-off between the two top finishers in the Labor primary.
The motion is expected to be supported by a strong coalition of loyalists of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Labor's Kibbutz sector, making it very difficult to defeat.
The central committee meeting was initiated by Labor leadership candidate Ophir Paz-Pines in an effort to force Labor out of the government. His effort was later endorsed by leadership candidates Ami Ayalon and Danny Yatom and recently resigned minister-without-portfolio Eitan Cabel, but the three men do not have enough power to pass a proposal to force Labor out of the government.
"It is extremely unlikely that Labor will leave the government any time soon," a source close to Barak said. "The reason is that, unlike the inexperienced people [a reference to Paz-Pines, Ayalon and Yatom] and the zigzaggers [a reference to Ayalon] in the Labor race, we have to look ahead and realize that we have to avoid elections and the formation of a right-wing government."
Channel 10 reported on Sunday that Barak had decided not to join a government led by Olmert. The report said Barak would not rule out joining the cabinet when he makes his first public statement since the Winograd report's release, but he would criticize Olmert in a way that would make clear that he would prefer to serve under a different prime minister.
Barak's official spokeswoman denied the report, saying that he had made no decisions about whether to join the government and what to say about Olmert.
"When we have so many sources close to us, associates and supporters who claim to speak in Ehud's name, no reports surprise us anymore," she said.
Cabel, who supports Barak in the race, said Barak's words would have more of an impact on pressuring Kadima to replace the prime minister than the timing of the vote and the wording of the proposal.
Barak's political opponents accused him of being hypocritical for being willing to speak out against Olmert while artificially extending his tenure by prolonging the vote on whether Labor should quit the coalition.
"Barak is doing strange things and it's definite that he has a deal with Olmert," Ayalon's running-mate Avishay Braverman said. Ayalon's spokeswoman added that recent polls have shown that Labor voters do not want the party to remain in the government.
Speaking at a protest tent he erected outside Olmert's official residence, Paz-Pines said he would settle for nothing less than the central committee voting to quit Olmert's coalition. He said he would fight Barak's effort to allow Olmert to remain in power.
"There are few moments when Labor can really restore its self-respect," Paz-Pines said. "Labor must prove that it can still lead the country. The committee must decide that the prime minister and defense minister must quit and if not, we are leaving the coalition. Any other wording is not effective or relevant."
Paz-Pines said he set up the protest tent because he wanted to demonstrate continuity after Thursday's demonstration in Tel Aviv's Kikar Rabin. He said he wanted to ensure that Olmert would not think the protest against him had ended on Thursday.
Anti-Olmert protesters came from as far away as Hatzor, Zichron Ya'acov and Netiv Ha'asara to support Paz-Pines in the tent.
"I came to express my anger at the shame that the prime minister is causing the country by not quitting," said Pinny Peltz, a farmer from Netiv Ha'asara, whose greenhouses have been struck by Kassam rockets.
"I live in a place where security is important. I won't feel safe if the prime minister and defense minister remain in office."
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