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(photo credit: Associated Press)
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Labor chairman Amir Peretz revealed in a joint press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on Tuesday that they had discussed forming a coalition together in two secret meetings.
On Tuesday night President Moshe Katsav announced that no parties objected to Olmert forming the next government and that another round of consultations regarding the matter was pointless.
No MKs or advisers in Kadima or Labor were told about the meetings that took place at the private home of a mediator in Tel Aviv on Sunday and Monday night at Peretz's initiative. The meetings occurred as the press was focused on reports about Peretz trying to form a coalition with the Right that proved to be a smokescreen.
Olmert and Peretz said they agreed that Labor would be the senior partner in a Kadima-led coalition, that Labor would join the coalition before any other party and that Olmert would consult Peretz when deciding matters of consequence. They said they did not discuss what portfolios would be given to Labor, but Peretz is expected to be given the Defense portfolio.
"Amir Peretz and I have met and spoken over the past two nights at the initiative of both of us," Olmert said at the press conference, which was his first public event at the Prime Minister's Office. "As soon as the president invites me to form the government, we will start coalition negotiations to help us form a government in which Labor will be a senior partner as soon as possible."
Olmert said he would order Kadima's negotiating team to expedite the process of building a coalition, because it was "unhealthy" for the country to be run for so long by an interim government with limited authority. Sources close to Olmert and Peretz said they believed that after President Moshe Katsav officially asks Olmert to form the government, a coalition could be built in a matter of days, perhaps immediately after Pessah.
Peretz called Katsav on Tuesday afternoon to inform him that Labor was now endorsing Olmert as its candidate for prime minister. He said he discussed with Olmert their plans for advancing the peace process and fighting the social gap.
"We are standing before a new era," Peretz said. "A government led by Olmert and Kadima will be stable and last all four years. It can set short - and long-term goals. Israeli citizens will know we acted out of national responsibility to work on the serious problems Israel is facing."
Even Labor MK Yuli Tamir, who is the closest MK to Peretz, was not aware of the talks. While some Kadima and Labor MKs said they were impressed that Olmert and Peretz succeeded in keeping the secret, others said they felt deceived and felt awkward about criticizing the rival party leader in the press while the secret talks were taking place. Sources close to Peretz said he was peeved at Labor MK Matan Vilna'i, who criticized him publicly. Vilna'i said he did not regret his comments.
In a meeting with Labor's faction at the party's Tel Aviv headquarters following the press conference, Peretz chided the media for following the story about the Labor-led government even after Labor denied it. He said that even though the Labor secretary-general spoke at Beit Hanassi about forming a Labor-led coalition, the only intention from the start was to create a bloc or parties that would promote socioeconomic issues.
"There was never an intention to form a right-wing government," Peretz said. "We could have formed a government in a matter of hours had we wanted to, but our ideology wouldn't let us. I was under pressure but I never broke down. While the press and the country was shaking and quaking in uproar, I was negotiating with the prime minister."
Peretz told the faction that Olmert had proven that he could be a trusted coalition partner when their meeting on Sunday was not in Monday's newspapers.
"I wanted to see whether it would be leaked and I was happy it was kept confidential," Peretz said. "Had it been leaked, it would have proven we were in for years of spinning instead of four years of getting things done."
Prior to the press conference, Olmert met with his nemesis, Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, and invited the Likud to also join the coalition. Olmert's associates said the offer was "just to be polite," but sources said Olmert had sent messages in advance of the meeting telling Netanyahu that he could be foreign minister in a Kadima-led government.
Olmert outlined for Netanyahu his diplomatic plan, which calls for starting direct negotiations with the Palestinians and taking unilateral steps after the bilateral talks inevitably fail. Netanyahu responded that he also would prefer to negotiate with the Palestinians but that taking unilateral steps would endanger Israel's security.