Defense Minister Amir Peretz on Wednesday dismissed claims that tensions between himself and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were interfering with the running of the government. At Wednesday's meeting of the security cabinet, the two were not expected to discuss the dispute between them that has caused Olmert to seriously consider firing Peretz. The dispute started on Sunday, when Peretz spoke to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas without consulting the prime minister. Olmert's anger increased later when Peretz told Olmert incorrectly that Abbas had initiated the conversation and when the defense minister leaked details from the talk with Abbas to the press.
Analysis: Will Olmert be the last man standing?
Sources close to Olmert said he "does not intend to fire him yet," but put the emphasis on the "yet." They said Olmert had seriously considered firing him because of the lost trust between the two, because the prime minister was convinced that Peretz lied to him and because he believed Israel needed a more experienced defense minister to face the threats Israel is under.
"The dangers posed by Syria, the Palestinians and Iran require a different defense minister with more security experience and understanding than Amir Peretz," an Olmert associate said. "There have been enough excuses for the prime minister to fire him, including now. But the main reason for him to go is that every day in the Defense Ministry, he looks more ridiculous."
An Olmert associate noted that former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir fired Ezer Weizman from his cabinet because he spoke to Palestine Liberation Organization representatives behind his back.
Asked why the prime minister was not firing Peretz if he believes he is endangering the country, Olmert's associates said he was concerned that firing him could help Peretz's chances in the May Labor leadership race. They said Olmert was not concerned about causing a coalition crisis because he believes that if Peretz gets demoted to a socioeconomic portfolio, no Labor ministers would quit in protest.
Denying reports that Olmert is actively encouraging the appointment of former prime minister Ehud Barak as defense minister, Olmert's associates said he would be happy with the appointment of any of Labor's former security men.
They said waiting for the May Labor race in hopes that Peretz would lose was too long to wait and too much of a risk.
Peretz's associates said there was no chance whatsoever that he would agree to leave the Defense Ministry. They said leaving now would be tantamount to accepting blame for the shortcomings of the war in Lebanon.
Asked about his feud with Olmert on a visit to the Hermon, Peretz told reporters: "I am busy working on the IDF's preparedness. This is what I am devoting my time to and it's more important than anything else I could say."
Peretz received an unlikely endorsement from one of his fiercest critics, coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki of Kadima. Yitzhaki said he would encourage Olmert to keep Peretz and avoid unnecessary political turmoil.
"We can't change the coalition every day," Yitzhaki said. "We need to stop fighting, take advantage of the current stability in the coalition and start working to get things done."