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Olmert Divvies Up Ministries As Coalition Talks Wind Down

Ehud Olmert has big plans for Israel. And he is about to form a big government. The prime minister entered what appeared to be a final week of coalition talks Sunday, with a deal all but clinched between his Kadima Party and Labor.

With at least three other factions also set to come aboard, Olmert is looking at a mammoth Cabinet of 27 ministers.

Such a top-heavy government is a price he believes he has to pay if he wants to push through further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank: Kadima won last month’s elections by a slim margin and by itself commands nowhere near a parliamentary majority.

For Labor leader Amir Peretz, the coalition talks scored a personal coup: the Defense Ministry. Having been denied the Treasury Ministry, which Olmert intends for Kadima to hold, the former union chairman appears likely to be the successor to Shaul Mofaz and lead Israel’s security apparatus through a stormy period despite having no military pedigree.

“From his first day on the job, Amir Peretz will have to prove the legitimacy of him being there. Everyone will be scoring his performance and seizing on his mistakes, all the time,” wrote Alex Fishman, defense reporter for Yediot Achronot.

Aware of unease in Israel over how he will handle the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, Peretz made it known that he would choose a deputy defense minister with top-brass experience.

The leading candidate is Labor’s Ephraim Sneh, a retired brigadier general in the Israeli military and veteran member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“The Israeli people can sleep well at night,” Sneh told Israel Radio. “We need a defense minister with the proper combination of boldness and prudence, an ability to assess and decide,” traits that Peretz possesses, Sneh said.

Labor was promised four other ministries — education, agriculture, infrastructure and tourism — as well as two ministries without portfolio.

As the nominations became clear, there were disappointed candidates on both sides of the talks.

Former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon and veteran economist Avishay Braverman, denied portfolios, said in interviews that by joining Labor, they had helped Peretz in the polls.

Uriel Reichman tendered his resignation from Kadima, saying he had only entered politics on the understanding he would be education minister.

Also miffed was Meir Sheetrit, a former finance minister who looks likely to lose out on a new stint in the post to Avraham Hirschson.

Mofaz was more reticent. According to media reports, Olmert may tailor a new, trade-related portfolio for the ex-defense minister in order to keep him in the Cabinet.

That left only Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni keeping her position, while Shimon Peres was promised the Regional Cooperation Ministry he ran under the Barak government.

What does that leave for the other prospective coalition partners?

Avigdor Lieberman, head of the hawkish, pro-immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu, looks likely to win the Internal Security Ministry, though objections by Israel’s attorney general threaten this. Lieberman has vowed to crack down on crime in Israel. He has been more circumspect on Olmert’s West Bank plans, saying unilateral withdrawals will only embolden Palestinian terror.

Lieberman will also gain the Immigrant Absorption Ministry.

Shas, the religious party appealing mainly to Sephardi Jews, is expected to receive the welfare and housing portfolios. It is also expected to appoint a minister without portfolio who will have authority over religious matters — perhaps an indirect effort to rebuild the Religious Affairs Ministry, dismantled by the secular Shinui Party in the last government.

The last clutch of Cabinet posts will go to the Pensioners Party, which took a surprising seven seats in the elections. The party’s leader, former spymaster Rafi Eitan, will become the first Israeli pensioners minister, having had the post custom-made. One of his colleagues is expected to take over the Health Ministry.

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