Defense Minister Amir Peretz believes Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will appoint him finance minister if Avraham Hirchson is forced to leave the Finance Ministry, as is expected in the coming days, a source close to Peretz hinted on Wednesday.
At a campaign rally on Tuesday, Peretz said that he would demand to be moved to the Finance portfolio if he wins the May 28 Labor leadership race. His associates took the demand a step further on Wednesday, suggesting that he would demand the post if Hirchson was forced to resign by Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz.
If Olmert were to to keep the Finance portfolio in Kadima, Peretz's associates have not ruled out instigating a coalition crisis, or at least going to the Labor central committee to formally demand the portfolio. Although Peretz does not have enough power in the committee to remove Labor from the coalition, it is likely that a majority of committee members would agree that Peretz is more fitting for Finance than Defense.
"Refocusing the race on the Finance portfolio and not the Defense portfolio as our rivals are doing would enable us to return to center stage," a Peretz strategist said, referring to the two front-runners in the race, former prime minister Ehud Barak and MK Ami Ayalon.
Olmert's associates have declined to discuss what would happen if Hirchson would be forced to leave his job, but speculation about possible successors has focused on Interior Minister Roni Bar-On and former justice minister Haim Ramon, whose legal fate is set to be decided on Thursday. Ramon has not said whether he would want to return to politics if his legal problems ended.
Labor leadership candidate Ophir Paz-Pines, however, mocked Peretz's demand of the Finance portfolio in a Tel Aviv press conference on Wednesday morning. "Peretz had two opportunities to demand the Finance portfolio during the coalition negotiations and after the second Lebanon war," Paz-Pines said. "But Olmert was so against having Peretz as finance minister that he was willing to sacrifice the security of the nation by making him defense minister."
Paz-Pines added that "the Olmert-Peretz government is finished," calling it "the worst government in the history of the state." He rejected suggestions by Ehud Barak that he could rejoin the government as justice minister if Barak was elected Labor leader.
"I wouldn't enter this government, even on a stretcher," Paz-Pines said. "Labor is the party of the living dead. It will never resuscitate itself if it doesn't sit in the opposition. If Labor remains in Olmert's government, it will bring Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu back to power on a silver platter."
A Teleseker poll broadcast on Army Radio on Wednesday found that if Olmert and Peretz remained the leaders of their parties, Netanyahu would easily defeat them in elections. However, if Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ayalon replaced their respective party leaders, they could defeat Netanyahu.
The poll found that Livni would win a close race with 25 seats for Kadima, followed by 23 mandates for both Netanyahu's Likud and Ayalon's Labor.
According to the Teleseker poll, 74 percent of Israelis believe the government is doing a bad job, while just two percent give the government a good grade.
Ayalon's campaign pointed out that in the poll, Barak would bring Labor only 20 seats and Peretz only 13, compared to Ayalon's 23.
"The poll proves that it is necessary to elect a candidate that appeals to the wider public to defeat Netanyahu and return Labor to power," Ayalon's spokeswoman said.