Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Labor chairman Amir Peretz a series of incentives in an effort to convince him to remain in his coalition in a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office on Tuesday.
The incentives, which are intended to sweeten the pill of sitting in a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu party, reportedly include: The post of deputy defense minister for Labor faction chair Ephraim Sneh; the post of minister-without-portfolio in charge of minorities for MK Eitan Cabel; and the chairmanship of a Knesset committee. Sources in the Prime Minister's Office denied reports that Olmert offered Labor the Welfare Affairs portfolio or the chairmanship of the Knesset's Finance Committee.
Peretz was expected to respond to Olmert's offer late Tuesday night after press time following a series of meetings with his closest advisers and political allies. If Peretz accepts the deal, it is likely that cabinet and coalition votes on expanding the coalition that had been set for Wednesday will be delayed until after Sunday's Labor central committee vote on whether Labor should remain in the coalition.
The addition of Israel Beiteinu to the coalition is expected to pass easily in votes set for Wednesday morning in the cabinet and Wednesday afternoon in the Knesset.
At a conference with Labor Party activists from kibbutzim and moshavim in Ramat Efal on Tuesday, Peretz called his meeting with Olmert critical and said it would have a significant impact on his recommendation to Labor central committee members who will convene on Sunday to decide whether the party should quit the coalition to protest Lieberman's addition.
Even before the Olmert-Peretz meeting, Peretz's loyalists in the Labor central committee had begun working on behalf of a proposal to keep Labor in the coalition.
Peretz hinted in his speech at the conference that he wanted Labor to remain in the government, even though he did not like the idea of serving alongside Lieberman. He lashed out at his detractors within the party for being "overly critical."
"Labor still has what to contribute to a renewed effort to reach peace," Peretz told the audience. "But Lieberman's presence is very grave for us. No one should guess what my recommendation will be to the Labor central committee. But you can be sure that I will have considered every possible aspect and its impact on the country and the party."
The kibbutz representatives, who make up one of Labor's largest sectors, decided to endorse remaining in the coalition.
Senior Labor MKs who spoke at the event were divided on the issue, with Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ophir Paz-Pines favoring quitting the government and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon saying that Olmert told him on Tuesday that he wanted Labor to stay.
"Olmert told me he wants Labor in the coalition. He respects Peretz as a leader and he does not want to play tricks on him or humiliate the party," Simhon said. "We need to try to unite Israeli society as much as possible and that means sitting with a party like Israel Beiteinu that represents immigrants who we have never properly represented."
Noting that a memorial ceremony for former Labor leader and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was held prior to the event, Paz-Pines said that Labor leaders must ask themselves what Rabin would have done in their place.
"We have to ask ourselves how willing we are to be doormats," Paz-Pines said. "If we sit with Lieberman, we would betray our constituents. We don't see eye to eye with Lieberman on anything. We don't need a super-defense minister [over Peretz]. If we don't take ourselves seriously, no one will."
In a meeting with Peretz on Tuesday at the Knesset, Meretz leader Yossi Beilin told the Labor leader he would be making a big mistake if he decided to remain in a coalition with Lieberman. Beilin declined Peretz's request to discuss a merger of their parties.
Peretz also met with Lieberman in the Knesset cafeteria in a meeting that was not planned in advance. Both sides said the 10-minute meeting was coincidental and positive. Lieberman reportedly tried to convince Peretz to remain in the coalition.
Lieberman, whose title will be minister-without-portfolio in charge of strategizing for the Iranian threat, will discuss the issue with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana on Wednesday. Lieberman said in an interview with the Knesset Channel on Tuesday that his main task would be to help the different security and intelligence agencies better coordinate their work on Iran.
The Knesset will vote Wednesday on adding Israel Beiteinu to the coalition, despite vocal opposition from Arab MKs that the vote falls on the final day of the Id al-Fitr holiday, which ends that evening.
Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik announced that she would allow the vote to take place, but schedule it for "late in the day" so that Muslim MKs could celebrate before attending the vote. Traditionally, no "important" votes are held on the three days of the Id a-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan.
"Holding this vote on Id al-Fitr is the equivalent of holding it on a Jewish holiday like Simhat Torah or Rosh Hashana," said MK Dov Henin (Hadash). "It's a disgrace and disrespectful to Muslims, especially since it is Lieberman, who has been so disrespectful to Muslims, who is being voted in."
Henin added that as far as he knew, all of the Knesset's Muslim MKs would interrupt their holiday to come to the Knesset and vote against Israel Beiteinu's addition to the coalition, in protest of that party's "anti-Arab and racist views."
Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.