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Amir Peretz was upbraided by Labor MK Matan Vilna'i, who was furious when his turn to speak arrived at the Labor Central Committee meeting in Tel Aviv Sunday afternoon.
"I have to apologize," he began in a hoarse voice, "I have to apologize for flying 30 years ago with 217 soldiers to release the hostages at Entebbe and return them home. And I have to apologize for flying 40 years ago with 13 paratroopers into Egypt. I brought them back without a scratch, and the Egyptians stopped killing our soldiers at the canal."
Peretz, who in his speech only a quarter of an hour earlier had made jokes at the expense of Labor's "generals and admirals" who had "suddenly" begun to demand that the party deal with social affairs, waved his hand dismissively at Vilna'i's histrionics.
A few minutes later he realized that he had gone too far and stood up to apologize, explaining that he hadn't meant to mock them and that he "hugs and salutes all of them."
But it was too late. Peretz had brazenly taken on not only the party's old guard but its entire cadre of ex-generals. And this is the man who in a few days is going to take responsibility for the entire military.
Peretz and his supporters, who had been confident earlier that they would win the vote, suddenly weren't so sure. There was an ugly feeling in the air; it had become a whole lot more personal and many committee members who were undecided before were pushed into the rebel camp.
There were a lot of anxious faces around Peretz during the count, which turned out to be a lot closer than expected. The slim majority that Peretz's motion eventually received was greeted as a great victory. Defeat would have meant a drastic downgrade of Peretz's leadership credentials a month after the elections.
"I am now entering the government with your full backing," said Peretz in his victory speech, but even he realized that he had nothing like his party's full backing. If he hadn't made some last-minute deals, such as adding the title of Jerusalem affairs to Ophir Paz-Pines's ministership-without-portfolio, he would have surely lost.
What is clear after the almost successful insurrection is that Peretz's leadership is still tentative and limited. Labor doesn't buy the Peretz show anymore. It knows, despite his claims to the contrary, that he failed in the elections and lost Knesset seats; it doesn't believe him when he says that he has appointed the best candidates to the cabinet; and it knows that the deal he got from Ehud Olmert isn't that great.
To his list of baseless claims, Peretz added Sunday a promise that "Avishay Braverman will be a minister in this government, much earlier than you think." Labor members are seasoned enough to know that this an empty promise, and Peretz has no way of guaranteeing Braverman's cabinet post.
Amir Peretz's achievements in winning the Labor leadership and leading the party in the last elections are still considerable. He can still solidify his rule over the party, but what's clear now is that instead of dedicating his entire time to his new job as defense minister, he'll have to devote a significant part of his schedule to party matters. He would do well to start out by learning a bit of humility, if Sunday's lesson wasn't enough.
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