Lapid and Peretz work out deal to topple national unity government together.
By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
The Labor, Shinui, National Religious Party, and National Union factions agreed with new Labor chairman Amir Peretz that the ideal date for the general elections would be March 7, the first Tuesday in March.
Peretz convened the Labor faction and received its endorsement for the agreement that he worked out earlier in the day with Shinui leader Yosef Lapid, NRP chairman Zevulun Orlev, and National Union MK Yitzhak Levy.
"For the good of Israel, the date cannot be delayed," Peretz told reporters in a press conference after the Labor faction meeting. "National responsibility requires holding the elections as soon as possible. I support elections at the beginning of March, and I hope Sharon agrees," Peretz said.
Peretz also said that he "does not intend to back [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon into a corner." He added that the decision is in the hands of the prime minister.
Sharon's national unity government will fall on Monday, November 21, according to a bill to disperse the Knesset, agreed upon on Tuesday by Peretz, Orlev, and Levy.
"The government will fall, by law, on Monday night," Levy said after leaving Peretz's office.
Peretz brought the deal to the Labor faction for approval on Tuesday afternoon, and will propose it to Sharon on Thursday, followed by a presentation to the Labor Central Committee on Sunday.
According to the deal, Levy and Orlev agreed to push off the vote on their Knesset dispersal bills from Wednesday to Monday, and in return, Peretz agreed to coordinate with them the date for toppling the government.
Peretz spoke to Knesset Law Committee chairman Michael Eitan, who promised him that the process of dispersing the Knesset would be handled fairly.
The Knesset dispersal bill still has to be passed in three more readings in the Knesset, and again in the Knesset Law Committee, which is controlled by Sharon ally Eitan, making Sharon's agreement to the move necessary.
Sharon will meet with the Likud faction on Wednesday morning, ahead of his meeting with Peretz on Thursday. Following the meeting with Peretz, the prime minister will meet with Shinui chairman Yosef Lapid.
Lapid met with Peretz over breakfast at Lapid's north Tel Aviv home on Tuesday morning. The two agreed to work together to topple the government.
Peretz received assurances from Lapid that if Labor ministers quit the government, Shinui would not replace Labor in the coalition.
On Monday, Peretz forced Labor's eight ministers to sign resignation letters, following a Yitzhak Rabin memorial session at the Knesset.
The ministers gave the letters to Peretz, who said he would submit them to Sharon and allow them to take effect when the time was right. Peretz intends to bring the letters with him on Thursday morning when he meets with Sharon and tries to set a date together with him for the next general election.
The move was intended to preempt a possible decision by Sharon to fire the ministers and to prevent Sharon from dividing them by negotiating with those who want to remain in the government.
Sources close to Sharon responded to Peretz's move by accusing him of scaring the Labor ministers into signing the forms against their will. The sources said that Sharon would not fire the ministers and that as long as Labor did not vote to topple the government, the prime minister would not make any political moves ahead of Thursday's meeting with Peretz.
Peretz met with all of the Labor ministers at the Knesset and asked them to sign the forms. Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres asked Peretz to delay submitting them until after he succeeded in finalizing a deal on the Rafah crossing. Communications Minister Dalia Itzik was seen leaving Peretz's office with a scowl on her face.
But Itzik later bragged that she was one of the first ministers to sign a form. Interior Minister Ophir Paz-Pines said that Peretz's move was a good idea, and Environment Minister Shalom Simhon said the resignation letters sent an important message.
"After the reports that we intend to rebel against Peretz, we decided to prove that we are united and that we are giving Peretz our full support," Simhon said.
Construction and Housing Minister Yitzhak Herzog said the question of when the Labor ministers would end up quitting "is a poker game and anything can happen." Knesset Law Committee chairman Michael Eitan said that the resignation letters had no legal basis. He said that when the Labor ministers quit, they would have to sign new letters and give them to Sharon themselves.
"The Labor ministers are acting as if they are Peretz's hostages," Coalition chairman Gideon Sa'ar said. "Giving Peretz the resignation forms demonstrates an absence of trust in the Labor leadership."
Sharon's office denied allegations from Peretz that the prime minister had tried to cancel the Thursday meeting and asked Peretz to meet instead with Sharon's son, MK Omri Sharon. Peretz's spokesman said that "if Omri wants a meeting, he can meet with Amir's daughter Shani."