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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Education Minister Yuli Tamir criticized the Labor party's decision late Wednesday night to agree to Israel Beiteinu's entry into the Kadima-led coalition. The "Labor rebels have split the party," Tamir said. "They have put Lieberman in the government."
Labor Party ministers voted to approve Israel Beiteinu's membership in the coalition, and expressed support for Labor chairman Amir Peretz's decision to remain in the government despite Lieberman's joining. A vote on whether the party will stay in the coalition is expected Sunday.
The sole holdout in the vote was Science, Culture and Sports Minister Ophir Paz-Pines, who echoed Tamir's sentiments, saying the decision would split Labor into two camps.
Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer brushed aside Paz-Pines' comments, saying that "Labor has always included both hawks and doves, and they have always lived together in peace." Ben Eliezer praised Peretz for the move, which he called "courageous."
In a meeting Wednesday morning between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the two decided that the coalition's expansion to include Israel Beiteinu would not change the coalition guidelines, nor would the acceptance of party chairman Avigdor Lieberman cause Peretz to lose any authority.
Among the issues discussed, Olmert approved the nomination of Labor faction chair Ephraim Sneh as deputy defense minister.
The prime minister agreed that the government must post a welfare minister soon.
If United Torah Judaism will not join the government in "a reasonable period of time," then the welfare ministry will be given to Labor, Olmert said.
This would be a violation of a deal that Olmert made with Ya'akov Edri when he formed his government in April, in which the ministry was promised to Edri.
After hearing about Olmert's decision to appoint Sneh through media sources, Edri told the Jerusalem Post that the welfare portfolio must stay in Kadima. If the party does not retain control, this is what he will say to the prime minster.
"I oppose his decision, but the prime minister has the prerogative to appoint who he wants. I won't be a rebel," he told the Post.
Peretz will also head a ministerial committee on the Arab minority. Peretz requested that additional funding would go to the Arab minority, raising the minimum wage, child welfare, and old age payments.
Olmert responded that Peretz could raise the issues between the upcoming first vote in the Knesset on the 2007 state budget and its final reading.
Other incentives, which were intended to sweeten the deal of sitting in a coalition with Israel Beiteinu, which had not yet been officially addressed, reportedly include: 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 chairmanship of the Knesset's Finance Committee.
Because Peretz has accepted 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.
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.
While it was unclear if Peretz would accept the deal, the cabinet and coalition votes on expanding the coalition that had been set for Wednesday were postponed late Tuesday night following vocal opposition from Arab MKs that the vote would have fallen on the final day of the Id al-Fitr holiday, which ends that evening.
Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik had announced that she would allow the vote to take place, but had 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," MK Dov Henin (Hadash) had said prior to the cancellation of the votes. "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 had 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."
Next Sunday's Labor central committee will vote on whether Labor should remain in the coalition.
Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.
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