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(photo credit: Associated Press [file])
During the Labor faction meeting on Monday, Labor leader Defense Minister Amir Peretz said that the talk of friction between himself and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was "pure media spin" and simply untrue.
However, in what was seen as an intensification of recent friction between the leaders of the two main parties in the government, Olmert's office on Sunday prevented the cabinet from discussing Peretz's proposal to transfer tens of millions of shekels in humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority, while the Labor leader referred to Olmert's move as baseless "media spin."
The decision to remove the defense minister's initiative from the cabinet's weekly agenda followed a falling-out between the two men last week over Peretz's public call to resume contact with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, a move which irritated Olmert, who felt that his position was being usurped by his defense minister.
The two had held a heated meeting on the matter Thursday night, which evidently failed to resolve the tensions between them.
After the high-volume tete-a-tete, Peretz agreed that it was Olmert's prerogative to choose if and when to meet with Abbas, but publicly insisted, much to Olmert's irritation, that he would continue to push his long-standing view that restarting negotiations with the weakened PA leader was essential.
In the meantime, Peretz's plan for transferring NIS 50 million of the PA's frozen tax income to the Palestinians as humanitarian aid - a move which required government approval - never made it to the Sunday morning cabinet meeting for discussion.
The decision to temporarily shelve the draft proposal - in what officials said was an effort to show Peretz "who was the boss" - was blasted by the defense minister as harmful media spin.
"It is preferable that we start to work on essential matters instead of dealing with valueless media spins which only hurt the stability of the government," a statement from Peretz's office read.
Olmert is expected to meet Abbas after returning from Washington at the end of the month, but does not want to do so at this time due to concern that such a summit could lead to a suspension of international efforts to isolate the Hamas-led PA government.
The US administration is widely expected to urge Olmert during his visit next week to try to restart talks with Abbas, if only to show the world that Israel made an attempt at renewing bilateral negotiations before pressing ahead with unilateral withdrawal plans from the West Bank.
Three of Olmert's top aides were in Washington for meetings with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top administration officials to prepare for Olmert's first official visit to Washington as premier.
Olmert's meeting with President George W. Bush next Tuesday will aim to garner American support for the premier's convergence plan - whereby Israel would unilaterally withdraw from scores of isolated West Bank settlements while strengthening the major settlement blocs - and will also focus on Iran's nuclear threat.
Meanwhile, the government on Sunday approved the makeup of the 12-member security cabinet.
The prestigious ministerial committee will include seven ministers from Olmert's Kadima Party: Olmert, Vice Premier Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Justice Minister Haim Ramon, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. There will be three from Labor: Peretz, National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Minister-without Portfolio Ophir Paz-Pines, as well as the heads of both Shas and the Gil Pensioners Party.
Olmert blasted Shas leader Eli Yishai for going to the media before the cabinet meeting with complaints that Shas did not get enough seats on the much-coveted ministerial committee, officials said.
He also urged the ministers to get briefed at the Foreign Ministry before going abroad, stressing that once outside of the country they represented neither their own parties nor their own views but the State of Israel.