Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Wednesday he opposes adding Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu party to the coalition.
The Jerusalem Post reported exclusively on Tuesday that Peretz intended to oppose Olmert's efforts to bring in Israel Beiteinu. Peretz told Olmert he would not issue an ultimatum that his party would quit the government if Lieberman joins.
"The defense minister sees no possibility of a coalition with Lieberman," Peretz's spokesman said. "He is not ruling out Lieberman personally, but he believes that Labor and Israel Beiteinu have completely different outlooks on every issue. He believes it is possible to strengthen the current coalition without a major effort."
Sources close to Olmert said Peretz preferred that United Torah Judaism be added to the coalition instead. Olmert met with UTJ head Ya'acov Litzman earlier this week and told him that the Social Affairs portfolio would remain reserved for UTJ even if Israel Beiteinu joins the coalition.
But Peretz's political allies said that his solution was to take steps to make his faction adhere to coalition discipline so that changes in the coalition would not be needed. Peretz intends to convene the Labor Knesset faction on Sunday to introduce new disciplinary measures.
The Labor faction is split on the Israel Beiteinu issue, with ministers Shalom Simhon, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and MK Matan Vilna'i in favor and Peretz and MKs Avishay Braverman, Ephraim Sneh, Ami Ayalon, Colette Avital, Shelly Yacimovich, Nadia Hilu and Yoram Marciano against.
Braverman said that Labor cannot remain in a government with Lieberman due to his views on Israeli Arabs. Braverman warned Peretz that if Israel Beiteinu joined the government and Labor did not quit the coalition, all the Labor ministers would become "irrelevant dishrags."
"Labor already lost its credibility on economic and social issues," Braverman said. "If we lose our credibility as a liberal and ethical party as well, we will have nothing left."
Peretz reportedly sent his confidante Rahel Turgeman to persuade Shas officials to oppose Lieberman joining the coalition. But Turgeman denied that she had become involved in the Lieberman issue.
The disagreement between Olmert and Peretz on Lieberman added to problems in an already tense relationship. Peretz's associates complained that Olmert informed Shas chairman Eli Yishai of his intention to add Israel Beiteinu to the coalition, while he only told Peretz after the fact.
"We are not worried about Peretz's opposition," Olmert's spokesman said. "He needs to guarantee that his faction will obey coalition discipline before he starts declaring things."
Olmert's associates also criticized opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu for making a scandal out of Olmert's meeting with his rival, MK Silvan Shalom. The Prime Minister's Office said the meeting was routine and that if Netanyahu hadn't raised objections to it, it would not have been an issue.
Netanyahu's office had no official comment on the Olmert-Shalom meeting. But senior Likud officials called the meeting "improper" and said that "Olmert knows the address of the real opposition leader." They questioned why Olmert would want to meet with Shalom, two years after calling him a "caricature of a foreign minister."
Shalom said that Netanyahu's reaction "proves what kind of man he is" and that he "sees everything in a personal and petty way."
Shalom said that no coalition issues were discussed in the meeting but that he told Olmert that he opposed Lieberman's plan for changing the governmental system.
Lieberman's spokeswoman said that if the changes that Lieberman was proposing pass on preliminary reading in the Knesset set for next Wednesday, the Israel Beiteinu faction would meet to decide whether its future was in the coalition.
Gil Pensioners Party head Rafi Eitan told Lieberman on Tuesday that his faction would support Lieberman's bill, which would give it a majority in the Knesset. But Health Minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri said he would oppose it.