(photo credit: AP)
Anyone who was hoping that Defense Minister Amir Peretz would be voted out of the Labor leadership in upcoming months will be disappointed to hear that due to a loophole in the party constitution, it is possible that there will be no primary until February 2009.
In a story first reported by Israel Radio's Yoav Krakovsky, Labor activists close to Peretz have discovered a clause in the party's constitution that extends a requirement to hold a primary within 14 months of Labor losing a general election to 35 months. They found that a measure that was enacted at a 2004 Labor convention to extend Shimon Peres's tenure as interim party chairman changed the constitution and set a precedent that Peretz could use to remain in power.
Peretz seemed to indicate that he would take advantage of the loophole when he told Labor's executive committee at the party's Tel Aviv headquarters on Thursday night that he would "respect the decisions of the party institutions and move forward with the democratic process."
The Labor central committee had been expected to set a June 5 date for the leadership race at its convention next Thursday. But according to the new interpretation of the constitution, the committee could now decide to hold the race any time within the remaining 26 months ahead of the deadline.
"The election will not be in June," a source close to Peretz said matter-of-factly. "The constitution says explicitly, decisively and clearly that the rule has been amended from 14 months to 35."
Labor officials speculated at Thursday's meeting that every potential Labor leader could support delaying the race, except for the current front-runner, MK Ami Ayalon, who wants to hold the primary as soon as possible. Former prime minister Ehud Barak, for instance, could use time to rebuild his base of support in the party.
Ayalon, who wants to replace Peretz as defense minister, acknowledged the possibility that all the Labor contenders could decide to gang up on him, even it meant allowing Peretz to remain defense minister until 2009. But he said he trusted the central committee members to prevent such a scenario from taking place.
"The central committee members are sane and understand that the party's support has fallen because of its leadership," Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post after the meeting. "I am not worried, because I believe the central committee members will trust their gut and do what they can to bring the party back to power."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who reportedly has been indirectly trying to pressure Peretz to quit the Defense Ministry for weeks, changed his tune in his annual meeting with newspaper editors in Tel Aviv on Thursday.
"My relationship with Amir Peretz is better than that of any prime minister and his defense minister in the past 15 years." He said it was natural to "disagree on certain things," because they were the heads of different parties, but he thought Peretz should stay in his position. "I have no intention of replacing him," he said.
In a statement following Olmert's press conference, the Likud said: "Peretz is just as qualified to be defense minister as Olmert is to be prime minister."
Amir Mizroch contributed to this report.