ANALYSIS: Watching Peretz fall

"No one is drawing a knife right now," said one of the Labor MKs who took part in Friday's faction meeting. "We're just waiting to see how the event will turn out." What he actually meant is that they are all waiting to see how Amir Peretz will fall. Consensus now among almost all Labor leaders is that the party chairman has effectively painted himself into a corner. Those interested in challenging his leadership - about half the faction, if not more - would do better staying their hand and watching how Peretz digs himself in even deeper. Prospective opponents Avishay Braverman and Ophir Paz-Pines could allow themselves at the meeting to congratulate Peretz on his decision to back a state commission of inquiry into the war. He had already caused himself enough damage over the issue, and another possible rival, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, rightly accused him of "zigzagging." Peretz just can't win. If he had persevered in his opposition to a state commission, he would have been charged with trying to evade his share of responsibility for the war's mismanagement. By giving in and changing his mind, he has shown how weak he currently is within the party, with most of his former allies and supporters now waiting on the sidelines. And it's not only the commission on which Peretz seems to have no decent option. The next political battle, the 2007 state budget, which ostensibly was the main item on the meeting's agenda, is another trap for him. As defense minister, he has to stick by the IDF's demand for a massive increase in its budget. As a leader with a social agenda, he has to oppose additional defense spending and fight for money to combat poverty. Either way he's going to be attacked by powerful lobbies and savaged by the press. Right now he's taking the middle road by proclaiming that NIS 30 billion can be added to the defense budget without harming social projects - a ridiculous claim. Peretz is going to find out that by walking down the middle of the road, he risks being hit by cars coming from both directions. Some of his advisers believe that he would be better off relinquishing the Defense portfolio and demanding a bolstered Social Affairs Ministry. Their point is that instead of fighting the army's wars in cabinet against his natural allies, Peretz should return to the issues he's thought to be good with. But if he takes their advice, Peretz will be the first, and perhaps only, key figure involved with leading the war to resign, portraying himself as the one most to blame. He can't afford that, and besides, if he admits failure as defense minister, how will anyone ever take him seriously again as a potential prime minister? A natural option for a party leader in Peretz's position would usually be to precipitate a coalition crisis and leave the government, thereby highlighting his own distinct agenda and emphasizing his leadership. But for Peretz, that would almost certainly signal the end of the road as chairman. Released from ministerial responsibility, the party leaders who have as yet shown some self-restraint will tear into him and there is little hope that an early election might save him. If Labor leaves the coalition, Israel Beiteinu and United Torah Judaism are poised to replace him in return for hefty portfolios and increased funding for haredi interests. If this happens, Peretz will once again get the blame.