Ehud Barak 298.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wasted no time in replacing Defense Minister Amir Peretz with new Labor chairman Ehud Barak, passing Barak's appointment in a telephone vote of Labor ministers on Friday afternoon.
Barak's appointment as defense minister and deputy prime minister will take effect on Monday after it passes, as expected, in the Knesset and Peretz's resignation letter takes effect. Because Olmert left for Washington on Saturday night, Barak could already be acting prime minister on Monday evening if Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni goes to Brussels for a meeting of foreign ministers.
Peretz was outraged that Olmert and Barak were so quick to replace him. He told Olmert in a conversation on Friday that the telephone vote took him by surprise and that Barak violated a promise to him that the handover in the Defense Ministry would be coordinated in a respectful manner by the two of them.
"Why is Barak burning to join the government while the prime minister is away?" Peretz told Olmert, according to a source close to him. "It's not as if Barak is Rambo coming to save us. So why is [his appointment] being handled so hastily and disrespectfully?"
Barak told Peretz when they met on Thursday that he wanted to return to the Defense Ministry as soon as possible. They decided that the timetable for the handover of power and which cabinet post Peretz would be given instead would be decided in a later meeting of their representatives.
Peretz's associates accused Barak and Olmert of conspiring against Peretz. They warned that "the old, conniving Barak was back" and that Barak had started off his term as Labor chairman on the wrong foot.
Sources close to Olmert denied charges that he "couldn't wait to get rid of Peretz." They said Peretz had no right to complain about Barak's haste because he forced Labor ministers to resign from the government immediately upon his election as Labor leader in November 2005.
"If we didn't appoint Barak immediately, we would have had to wait another 10 days until the Knesset convened after Olmert's return," an Olmert associate said. "With everything that's happening in Gaza, the thousands of Palestinians who want to flood into Israel and the prime minister leaving today, the need for a defense minister was clear."
Barak's associates denied that he had broken any promise made to Peretz, saying that he made it clear from the moment he was elected that he was eager to return to the Defense Ministry so he could start working to end the Kassam fire on Sderot.
"I offered to immediately take over as defense minister and the prime minister agreed," Barak said in a meeting with MKs loyal to him on Friday afternoon.
Barak has two major political decisions to make this week. He is expected to replace Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh with a former general more loyal to him, such as MK Danny Yatom or MK Matan Vilna'i.
He will also have to decide who will replace former minister-without-portfolio Eitan Cabel in the cabinet after Peretz and MK Ami Ayalon apparently both turned down the post.
Kibbutz movement leaders have told Barak that if Peretz or Ayalon are not in the cabinet, they expect him to appoint their representative in the Labor faction, MK Orit Noked.
Defense officials said they were anxiously anticipating Barak's entry into the Defense Ministry later this week. The most pressing issue waiting on Barak's desk will be Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip.
The officials said that Barak would be required to immediately begin formulating the defense establishment's policy vis a vis the Palestinians in Gaza.
"They are going to begin running out of some basic supplies in the coming week," one official explained. "We will need to know what to do. Do we transfer new supplies, and if so, to whom?"
Meanwhile Friday, outgoing Defense Minister Amir Peretz canceled his planned participation in the Paris Air Show later this week. Peretz had planned to leave Sunday for four days in Paris, together with his wife. He had set up diplomatic meetings and was scheduled to inaugurate the Israeli pavilion at the air show, one of the most important defense expos, which Israeli officials said was expected to bring $800 million in new contracts to the Israeli defense industry.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.