amir peretz 298 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
While advisers to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speculated Tuesday that Olmert would soon ask the Labor Party to nominate a replacement for Amir Peretz as Defense Minister, a Kadima minister countered the rumors, telling Israel Radio that problems in the coalition would prevent the prime minister from doing so.
According to Army Radio, the move is likely to take place only after the 2007 national budget is authorized; however, due to the increasing tension between Peretz and the prime minister, the request to replace Peretz as Defense Minister may be hastened.
Peretz's 10-minute telephone conversation with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday badly strained his already tense relations with Olmert.
Their offices exchanged high-decibel barbs throughout the day on Monday, but a senior official in Olmert's office said in the evening there were no plans to hold a meeting with Peretz to clarify the issue.
The official expressed astonishment that Peretz sat opposite Olmert in Sunday's cabinet meeting, knowing that he was going to speak to Abbas later that day, and failed to inform Olmert or to consult with him on what to say.
The official said Peretz was not the first minister to speak with Abbas, adding that Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had done so in the past, but that they did so only after consulting with Olmert.
After speaking with Abbas, Peretz issued a brief statement saying that Israel could not tolerate continued Kassam rockets attacks and that he had urged Abbas to use his influence to stop them. He also said his contacts with Abbas would continue.
The publicity given to the conversation is what led to the harsh exchange between Olmert's and Peretz's offices. The air waves were filled with officials in Olmert's office saying Peretz was torpedoing chances for an Olmert-Abbas meeting and a chance to reach a substantive cease-fire, and counterclaims from officials in Peretz's office saying Olmert did not want anybody to meet with Abbas before he did.
Olmert has been saying for months that he was prepared to meet Abbas immediately, and according to his office, it was Abbas's demand that a meeting be accompanied by a release of Palestinian prisoners that was holding up the summit.
Abbas reportedly told Peretz he would convene all those responsible for firing the rockets and demand that they stop the attacks. He also reportedly said a cease-fire would also obligate Israel to halt military operations against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and that afterward it would be possible to renew a Palestinian-Israeli dialogue.
Peretz briefed Olmert on the contents of the conversation. Olmert asked Peretz to let his office deal with the matter. He said his chief of staff, Yoram Torbowicz, and foreign policy adviser, Shalom Turgeman, were scheduled to meet with senior officials from Abbas's office on Wednesday.
Any cease-fire, Olmert said, needed to be coordinated between himself, Peretz and Livni, and could not be concluded in a short telephone conversation.
Officials in Olmert's office were quoted as saying that Peretz was using the issue to reap political capital and improve his standing in the Labor Party.
Peretz, speaking at a Labor Party meeting on Sunday afternoon, boasted of his conversation with Abbas.
"Yesterday there was a conversation between myself and Abu Mazen [Abbas]," he said. "That discussion was very significant. It does not replace negotiations, but it opens up a window of opportunity that we in the Labor Party have to take advantage of."
Peretz said that as Labor Party chairman he was not "the emissary of military activities alone. I am the defense minister who has to give the directives to open fire, but I also have to do everything to bring about a cease-fire."
There were conflicting accounts as to whether Peretz initiated the conversation, or if it was initiated by the Palestinians through Hadash MK Muhammad Barakei.
Officials in Peretz's office were quoted Monday as saying that Olmert was blowing the issue way out of proportion, and that these types of conversations took place in the past and would take place in the future. They denied that the discussions were tantamount to diplomatic negotiations, and said they fell within Peretz's mandate of searching for ways to end the Kassam attacks.