Defense minister agrees to make switch after Labor Party primary in May.
By TOVAH LAZAROFF
In an effort to energize his flagging campaign for party leadership, Labor Chairman Amir Peretz announced on Tuesday night that if he won the upcoming primary he would seek to switch his portfolio from Defense to the Finance Ministry.
"On May 28, on the night that I am re-elected to head the Labor party, I will inform the prime minister of my intention to revise the coalition agreement and to demand the office of the Treasury," Peretz thundered as he spoke to supporters who gathered in Tel Aviv for a Pessah toast.
His announcement fueled speculation that Peretz had finally caved to popular pressure and planned to abandon the Defense Ministry regardless of whether or not Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ceded to his request to switch portfolios.
Those close to Peretz dismissed this as pure media speculation. They said the announcement was not a resignation speech but rather an attempt to strengthen his campaign and focus attention on the initial social-welfare goals that initially led him to seek the party leadership.
It's not the first time that Peretz had sought this portfolio. During the initial coalition talks last April, he failed in his bid to secure the Treasury and instead ceded to Olmert's offer of the Defense Ministry.
On Tuesday night, Peretz mentioned that failed effort. "You don't know how much I wanted to be the finance minister. You can't imagine how much effort we put into those [coalition] negotiations. When things fell through, I agreed to fill that most important post of defense minister," said Peretz.
Those close to Peretz said they are confident he will be more successful the second time around. They said he was not deterred in his quest by past political history. In the annals of the country, a ruling party has only twice offered the key financial post to a rival party and that was during the period of the national unity government in the 1980s.
Sources close to Peretz said he would not have made such a brash statement without some contacts with Kadima and the Prime Minister's Office on the matter, although they did not specify the nature of those interactions.
The sources said that in this second round of negotiations Peretz would be in a much stronger position, having won his party's approval for the second time, and Olmert would be in a much weaker position than he had been during the first round.
The Prime Minister's Office said it was not at this time contemplating replacing Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson. They chalked Peretz's speech up to rumors that have surrounded the position since it was announced last week that the police are investigating embezzlement charges against Hirchson.
One of Peretz's rivals for party leadership, MK Ophir Paz-Pines, attacked the speech by stating: "Too little too late." He added that it was the kind of speech which spoke of an intention by Peretz to stay in Olmert's government, when the goal should be to replace it.
At this time, he added, the Labor party should be looking to leave the coalition.
MK Yoel Hasson of Kadima said he thought it was odd that Peretz thought that Kadima would hand him the keys to the nation's economy in light of his performance in the Defense Ministry.
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