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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Most Labor ministers said Sunday morning that the party's departure from the government was a 'done deal' but noted that the official decision to leave the government should be taken by party institutions. Some said that the path that Peretz adopted was too impulsive, and added that parting from the Likud should be done in 'good spirits'.
The announcement came three days after Amir Peretz was chosen as head of the Labor Party, and amid growing tensions between Peretz and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which hit a new high Sunday morning as Likud members lambasted the union leader, who in turn threatened to move up his deadline for breaking apart the government.
Peretz's promise to pull his party out of the coalition was part of his pre-election platform.
The initial argument began when Sharon, having discussed the possibility of meeting with Peretz as early as Sunday, decided to postpone the meeting until Thursday. In response, Peretz threatened on Saturday night to topple Sharon's government as early as Wednesday by voting for a proposal submitted by MK Yitzhak Levy (National Union) to disband the Knesset and go to elections.
"If the meeting with Sharon does not take place at the beginning of the week, we will have to topple the government already on Wednesday," Peretz told Channel 2. "Sharon acted irresponsibly by delaying our meeting and stalling. I know how to play political tricks too. The era in which Sharon can treat other parties like his marionettes is over."
The initial response from the Sharon camp was mild, and even mildly apologetic, as Sharon's associates responded that Sharon genuinely does not have time to meet with Peretz until Thursday because of the large number of world leaders who came to Israel for the ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the Rabin assassination. They said that Sharon did not mean to slight Peretz, but that he would have to wait his turn to meet with Sharon after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former US president Bill Clinton, New York Senator Hilary Clinton and other dignitaries.
But as Labor reiterated its threat Sunday morning to disband the Knesset if Sharon failed to advance the date for the delayed meeting between Sharon and Peretz, the mud-slinging began.
"Amir Peretz did to the Labor Party what Moshe Feiglin is trying to do the Likud," unnamed sources close to Sharon said Sunday morning. "This is a case of a man who stole a party in a hostile take-over."
Peretz blamed Sharon for the break in the communications between the newly-elected Labor head and the prime minister, saying that he had called the prime minister 22 times on Saturday without receiving an answer.
In response, an unnamed Sharon source said that "a person who makes 22 phone calls to the same number within an hour-and-a-half must have a psychological infirmity."
A Likud source said that Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon tried to contact Peretz, but that the labor leader refused to speak with him and insisted that he would speak only with Sharon.
Likud loyalists did not hesitate to characterize Peretz as a populist union leader who was unused to the niceties of national office.
Associates of the prime minister said that "Peretz has to learn that this isn't the Histadrut, and he can't use threats to get his way," a statement reiterated by MK Ronnie Bar-On, a seasoned Sharon supporter within the fractured Likud Party. Bar-On added that Peretz had never ceased to pound on tables and shout into megaphones. "It is possible that within the Labor Party, they decided to return to a small workers organization, in light of events over the weekend," Bar-On said.
In response, Peretz's associates issued a statement accusing Sharon of trying to "pull off political tricks aimed at preventing Labor from voting on Wednesday on pushing forward the elections."
According to the statement, "The era in which Sharon was used to running all parties has ended. We advise him to focus on his own party, where he has much greater problems."
Interior Minister Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) found a positive light to the onslaught of Likud accusations. "The condescension and contempt attest to a certain hysteria and panic of no small proportion. The Likud is in a state of panic. They have a big problem with Peretz's election."