Sources close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused Defense Minister Amir Peretz on Thursday of ordering the immediate evacuation of illegal outposts in an attempt to prevent the addition of Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu party to the coalition.
Peretz ordered the destruction of some 80 illegal buildings in Jewish and Arab areas of the West Bank during a meeting he convened Thursday night with defense officials and the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj.-Gen. Yosef Mishlav.
"This is a case of transparent and obvious political spin," an Olmert associate said. "It is clear why he has [issued the order] now. Peretz has ordered the removal of outposts before, but it cannot happen without the approval of the prime minister and there is no chance that it will happen in the next week."
Lieberman has made a freeze in removing outposts one of his conditions for joining the coalition. Sources in the Prime Minister's Office revealed that negotiations between Olmert and Lieberman have continued at the highest level by telephone while Lieberman is abroad.
One focus of the discussions between them has been portfolios. Lieberman has said he is willing to have his party join the coalition with only one ministry, a deputy prime ministership for himself that would put him in charge of planning strategy regarding the threat from Iran.
But Olmert's associates said the prime minister prefers that Israel Beiteinu receive the three portfolios coming to it as an 11-member faction, because he wants to make it more difficult for the party to leave the coalition.
A source in Israel Beiteinu said he would object to Lieberman accepting only one portfolio, because the party would not be "Lieberman and the 10 dwarfs."
Labor MKs said they were frightened at the prospect of strategic planning for the Iranian threat being put in the hands of Lieberman, who made headlines in 2001 by suggesting that Israel should bomb Teheran.
Peretz's associates said he opposed the addition of Lieberman to the cabinet, but he would not object to there being a minister in charge of strategic planning as there has been in the past. Olmert assured Peretz on Wednesday that none of his responsibilities would be removed from him for Lieberman.
Peretz will face an angry Labor faction on Sunday that is split between MKs who want him to quit the cabinet if Lieberman joins and MKs upset at him for not taking proactive steps to preempt Olmert's efforts to add Lieberman to the coalition.
MK Ami Ayalon, who intends to run against Peretz in May's party primary, said that in return for Lieberman joining the coalition, Peretz should ask Olmert to accept Labor's red lines on the 2007 state budget, to negotiate with Syria and to present a diplomatic plan to replace the realignment plan that has been shelved.
Olmert met Labor faction chairman Ephraim Sneh and MK Ghaleb Majadle on Thursday, seeking their support for Lieberman's addition to the cabinet. Sneh said he warned the prime minister that Lieberman's addition would prevent the government from fulfilling its objectives and the promises he made to Labor when the government was formed.
Channel 2 revealed on Thursday night that Lieberman attempted to convince Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu to join the coalition along with him. But Netanyahu canceled a meeting with Lieberman set for last Friday when he heard that he was in contact with Kadima about joining the coalition.
Netanyahu's office confirmed the report, but Lieberman released a statement saying "I don't know of such a meeting and there is no meeting planned."
A Dahaf poll published in Yediot Aharonot on Thursday found that the Likud and Israel Beiteinu would be the two largest parties if elections were held today, with 22 and 20 mandates respectively. Kadima and Labor would each receive 15 seats, according to the poll.
Netanyahu's Likud rival, MK Silvan Shalom, said he believed that Lieberman's goal in joining the coalition was to "assassinate" Netanyahu politically by enabling Olmert's coalition to last longer while Netanyahu languishes in the desert of the opposition.
Yaakov Katz, Sheera Claire Frenkel, Tovah Lazaroff and Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.