Barak undecided on what to do with Peretz, Ayalon

New Labor leader sworn in as defense minister

Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak will return to the Defense Ministry on Tuesday for the first time since he lost it and the premiership in 2001. But the fates of his predecessor, MK Amir Peretz, and his rival in last week's leadership runoff, MK Ami Ayalon, remain undecided. Barak was sworn in as defense minister on Monday evening after the Knesset passed his appointment by a vote of 46 to 22, and immediately received security briefings. Barak, who was eager to return to the Defense Ministry as soon as possible, is less eager to return to the political battlefield. Sources close to Barak said he was not looking forward to making decisions about Peretz and Ayalon. There is only one portfolio available for either of them, unless Prime Minister Ehud Olmert takes the unlikely step of expanding the cabinet. Barak's advisers are divided over who should be given the portfolio and who should be left in the backbenches of the Knesset. Some advisers have told Barak that Peretz must be placated to prevent him from being a thorn in his side and to maintain the new voters he brought Labor. Others have recommended "leaving Peretz for dead" and instead building up his successor as Histadrut leader, Ofer Eini, and MK Shelly Yacimovich as Labor's point people on socioeconomic issues. Barak's closest adviser, Eldad Yaniv, is said to favor giving the available portfolio to Ayalon instead of Peretz and making him a minister-without-portfolio in the Defense Ministry under Barak. In such a scenario, Barak would not hire a deputy defense minister to replace Ephraim Sneh. But other advisers have told Barak that Ayalon, unlike Peretz, has no camp in Labor, so giving him a job was unnecessary. Ayalon has vowed that he would never be a minister-without-portfolio and he has told his associates he is holding out for a senior portfolio. Barak told the Labor faction Monday that when Olmert returns from Washington there would be coalition talks with Kadima. He appointed Labor MKs Yacimovich, Orit Noked, Avishay Braverman and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon to draft the party's demands for the 2008 state budget ahead of the coalition talks. Labor faction chairman Yoram Marciano, who is close to Peretz, warned Barak at the start of the meeting that the Labor MKs were not willing to forgo their opinions. Barak responded that the proper balance had to be found between allowing the MKs' "freedom of thought and expression" and "uniting in action." "We are one faction today and we must join hands in order to return to the national leadership," he said. "The public wants us to express our views, but beyond freedom of thought, we need to act together, because it's the secret to be effective." Barak said the party should also start preparing for the next general election, which he told the faction would likely be in 2008 and against Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu already began implementing his political strategy of equating Olmert and Barak together as failed prime ministers who harmed Israel's security. He has told the Likud faction that Israel's security crises were the result of the unilateral steps and other diplomatic mistakes of the two men. "The problems we are experiencing are not military, but rather due to the mistakes of our leaders," Netanyahu said.