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Long-simmering bad blood between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz boiled over into a shouting match at Tuesday's cabinet meeting that forced Olmert to stop the meeting for five minutes to let passions cool down.
In the middle of briefings on the threat of a Histadrut strike and the failure of a municipalities to pay their employees, Peretz spoke up and wanted to offer a number of suggestions.
When Olmert said that the ministers were not holding a discussion on the issue, only hearing briefings, Peretz stood up in anger and, according to ministers at the meeting, bent over the table, raised his hand and shouted, "What is our job, what are we doing here if you do not let us make comments?"
Olmert told Peretz, "You will not talk like this. I am running the meeting, I recommend that you calm down, and I request that you sit down."
Peretz responded, "How can it be that ministers have opinions and are not allowed to speak? I want a vote on the matter. What is this, one-man rule?"
Interior Minister Roni Bar-On and Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, who were briefing the ministers on the strike threat, tried to calm him down by saying that a discussion on the matter would be held at another cabinet meeting. Bar-On reportedly said, "For eight months you did not shout like this regarding defense matters. Look, now you have returned to be the head of the Histadrut."
When attempts to calm Peretz failed, Olmert called a five minute time-out, during which the ministers left the cabinet room. When they returned, the meeting continued, and the two principals - according to cabinet sources - traded a feeble joke.
While Olmert and Peretz have been at odds for months, this was the first time the tension had erupted in a public forum. It was widely attributed to frustration stemming from Peretz's poor showing in internal Labor Party polls and Olmert's ongoing battles with State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss.
At the beginning of the cabinet session, which was moved to Tuesday from the usual Sunday because of the Purim holiday, Olmert said that while the municipal workers who have not been paid were not employed by the central government, "we cannot reconcile ourselves to a situation where people who work in the municipalities don't have a reasonable solution to the salary payment problem. This is an elemental humanitarian issue that it is impossible to become reconciled with."
The prime minister said he spoke with Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini and said it would be a mistake to call a general strike over something the government and the Histadrut agree on - the need to pay the workers' salaries. Olmert said a solution would be found within a matter of days.
The ministers, meanwhile, were presented with figures on the scope of the problem that were at odds with those provided by the Histadrut.
According to the figures given the cabinet on Tuesday, in February 1,544 municipal employees in 27 municipalities had not received their salaries. This compared to 3,365 workers in 53 municipalities in August 2006.
According to Histadrut figures, however, some 5,000 workers in 33 municipalities and 18 religious councils have not been paid.
As bad as the problems was, one senior cabinet official said, it did not justify shutting down the economy with a general strike.
The ministers were told the government was unable to transfer funds to the municipalities because those funds would first be used to pay creditors, and then only for paying salaries. In order for the money to be transferred for salaries, the municipalities had to first agree on restructuring plans, and 15 of the 27 municipalities in question have now done so.
After the meeting, Eini warned that if a solution was not found immediately, a strike would be called in two weeks.
"I want to believe that the prime minister will live up to his commitments and the problem will be solved in a matter of days," Eini said in a statement. "With that, however, the strike has not been canceled, only postponed, and if a solution is not found, we will renew the strike on March 21."