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Labor Party ministers are expected to resign from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's national-unity government on Monday after the Labor central committee voted nearly unanimously on Sunday night to quit the coalition.
The central committee meeting turned into a show of force for new Labor chairman Amir Peretz, who used the event to show that the party was united behind him. But the absence of Peretz's predecessor, Shimon Peres, overshadowed the presence of some 2000 Labor activists who came to the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds to cheer on their new leader.
Peres told his associates that he was still contemplating his future but that he does not have plans to join another party. Sharon reached out to Peres in Sunday's cabinet meeting.
"I thank you for your work in the government - this is the beginning of a joint venture together," Sharon said, adding fuel to the rumors that he will try to form a new party including Peres. "I won't release you from completing the missions you have yet to complete. I will call on your assistance in the future."
Peretz told the crowd that he appreciated Peres and he hopes he continues to serve Labor for years to come.
In a scene that resembled an American political convention, Peretz and his wife Achlama entered a packed room surrounded by flag-waving Labor youth and accompanied by the sound of his campaign jingle, "With Amir Peretz, Labor will win." Labor youth did a conga-line dance and the crowd raised signs with the word "Revolution" on them in blue and white. When Peretz walked onto the stage, confetti fell from the ceiling.
Peretz used his speech to correct impressions that his views are to the far left. He repeatedly said that he does not support the Geneva peace plan. He said that he is in favor of maintaining a united Jerusalem in a permanent agreement with the Palestinians and that he is against permitting Palestinian refugees into Israel.
"The war against terror will be without compromises," Peretz said, in an effort to appeal to centrist voters. But he also said that the Oslo, Hebron and Wye accords were important agreements that "made Sharon and a majority of Israelis realize that a Palestinian state is an Israeli interest."
Speaking under signs reading, "Labor will make a revolution," and "Man, economy, and peace," Peretz reached out to voters of the Likud, Shinui, National Religious Party and Yisrael Beiteinu. He even donned a kippa and uttered a prayer for peace.
"Come and join our social pact," Peretz said to Likud voters. "You have no reason to continue to pay the price of the war between Bibi [Netanyahu] and Sharon or for the dazzling fraud and the hedonism of your central committee members. You have no reason to feel you are abandoning the Likud. You are not abandoning the Likud; the Likud abandoned you. You gave the Likud your support and it turned its back on you. You believed in it as a family, and it deserted and neglected you."
Peretz said that the era when the nation's most important decisions were made in the Likud central committee was over. He said that history would judge Sharon for building the settlements despite the disengagement from Gaza and for remaining silent while Netanyahu's policies harmed poor children, senior citizens, single mothers and the unemployed.
Netanyahu's office responded that Peretz's "empty slogans" wouldn't change the fact that "Netanyahu saved the economy, created 170,000 new jobs, lowered taxes and filled the government's coffers enough to help the senior citizens and working mothers. Shinui leader Yosef Lapid said that Peretz was still the leader of the strikes that harmed the nation, "including the poor people he pretends to represent."
The central committee decided to hold the primaries for the party's Knesset list on January 17, 2006. The party's membership rolls will be open until Thursday to allow new people to join the party this week.
Thirty candidates for the party's Knesset list asked to speak at the event, but were left disappointed when only Peretz and his close allies - party secretary-general Eitan Cabel and Labor faction chairman Ephraim Sneh - were allowed to speak.