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Senior Labor Party officials slammed Science and Technology, Culture and Sport Minister Ophir Paz-Pines on Friday after he announced that he would not vote in favor of the appointment of Israel Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman as a cabinet minister.
"If Paz-Pines is not prepared to sit with Lieberman in the cabinet, he should quit," said the officials.
Labor sources said that Paz-Pines did intend to compete in the party's leadership race and that he was expected to quit the government if the Labor central committee came out in support of the coalition expansion.
Paz-Pines will announce on Monday whether he has decided to quit the cabinet to protest Israel Beiteinu's addition and whether he will challenge Chairman Amir Peretz for the Labor Party leadership.
Paz-Pines on Thursday vehemently denied reports that he had already decided both questions affirmatively. But his associates said that if the Labor central committee decided when it voted on Sunday to remain in the coalition, it would increase the likelihood that he would run.
"If I don't quit [the cabinet], then I cannot run [for Labor leader]," Paz-Pines told confidants, saying that only by resigning from the government could he present an alternative to Peretz.
A Shvakim Panorama poll broadcast on Israel Radio on Thursday found that if the Labor race was held now, MK Ami Ayalon would win with 34.4 percent, followed by Paz-Pines with 19.2%, former prime minister Ehud Barak with 13.7%, MK Avishay Braverman with 11.3% and Peretz in last place with only 11%.
Paz-Pines said Thursday that even if the Labor central committee decided to remain in the coalition, he could not vote in favor of Israel Beiteinu joining the coalition in either the cabinet or the Knesset.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would likely fire Paz-Pines if he voted against a cabinet decision in the Knesset. He could decide to absent himself from the vote but his associates said that he was not the kind of man to take the easy way out.
In an effort to prevent a central committee decision endorsing the coalition's expansion, Paz-Pines helped initiate a petition to force the vote to be held by secret ballot.
He also intends to battle Peretz's allies on the wording of the proposal ahead of the vote.
"I want the vote to be on whether Israel Beiteinu should be in the coalition and not on whether we should quit the government because that's not the issue at hand," Paz-Pines told The Jerusalem Post.
"I assume the central committee would vote against a proposal to add Israel Beiteinu to the coalition and then Olmert would not be able to do it."
Paz-Pines said he also intended to fight Peretz's effort to delay the Labor leadership race from May to August. Peretz's allies said the race must be delayed to allow enough time for a party membership drive.
In a speech to Labor's house committee in the party's Tel Aviv headquarters on Thursday, Paz-Pines said the race could and should be held in May. He said that after last year's membership drive was "traumatic and almost destroyed the party," there should not be a new drive. He claimed most of the committee members agreed with him.
The house committee decided to form committees to update the party charter, determine whether and how a drive should be held and examine how the race should be managed. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, who heads the committee, said it was still unclear when the race would be held and that it would be more clear after the committee met again in 10 days.