It's happening to him again: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert doesn't understand what they want from him. He doesn't get the criticism over the government reshuffle he completed this week. It's true that he mainly moved existing ministers around from one office to another, but what did they expect? That he would whip out 18 new faces - unfamiliar stars from an unknown country - and appoint them as cabinet members? An important post, that of finance minister, became open and needed to be filled. This resulted in a game of musical chairs that, in Olmert's view, took place in the best possible way, with the minimum of political upheaval and no personal crises.
The claims made by the opposition this week, that the government is dealing only with appointments and honors, rather than policy, were dismissed by the prime minister as sophistry. The government, he said, has a social-economic agenda, it's functioning, and we're meeting with the Palestinians; everything is all right.
Olmert is aware that some top officials in his party are against him, but at the moment he doesn't see anyone capable of endangering his position. He views his relationship with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz as excellent, and with Meir Sheetrit as very good. According to Olmert's associates, Mofaz told him: "I read in the paper that I could potentially cause damage, and I have no intention of doing so."
Olmert appeased Sheetrit, until this week minister of housing, by giving him the powerful position of interior minister, along with a promise that he would later be named deputy prime minister. After Sheetrit left Olmert's office in the Knesset, in walked Ze'ev Boim, who also wanted to become interior minister. Olmert told him about Sheetrit and said Boim would take the latter's place in the Housing and Construction Ministry.
"You're making a triple mistake," Boim told him. "Sheetrit won't become your ally, even with the interior portfolio. As soon as the situation allows it, he'll run against you. The second mistake is giving him responsibility over the local authority heads, who are the central organizational and political infrastructure of Kadima. He'll use that power for himself, not you. The third mistake is that a lot of mayors don't want him in the ministry."
Olmert listened, but didn't react. If Sheetrit makes trouble, he'll deal with him. After all, the finance minister, who controls the budgets, is Roni Bar-On.
Olmert's biggest joy is in Haim Ramon's return to the cabinet. He's certain that Ramon and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will get along with each other. They are adults who will be able to act responsibly despite the bad blood between them. Someone suggested that Olmert hold a three-way meeting with Barak and Ramon, and he promised to consider it.
He is also considering appointing five or six deputy ministers to finally suppress any vestige of bitterness within his faction. When his huge cabinet was established, just 14 months ago, Olmert promised not to appoint any deputy ministers, but apparently the statue of limitations has expired on that promise. Kadima is a party comprised of people looking for jobs. Until the last of the insulted party members filling the most far-flung position is satisfied, Olmert will enjoy no peace or quiet.
During his entire political career, Haim Ramon has been involved in putting out political fires and finding positions for others. Now he's on the receiving end. For an entire week, everyone dealt with the question of what portfolio to create for him and which minister's feet he's expected to step on. Ramon hated every minute. The seasoned politician, the cunning one who was always able to control his own destiny, found himself trapped; no matter what he did, nothing good would come out of it.
If he were to decide to resign from politics, after all the activity surrounding him, people would say he was insulted because he wasn't appointed finance minister. If he were to join the government as a minister without portfolio, he would perhaps be in a position similar to the one he was portrayed as filling during the Barak government: a trophy on the wall, serving the prime minister. Ramon ended up choosing the second option. He likes to depict it as a noble act for the sake of a besieged prime minister, but deep down he doesn't believe this arrangement will hold together for long.
As a veteran of several governments, Ramon is preparing for the worst-case scenario. Who is more familiar with the scene of a minister without portfolio wandering around the Prime Minister's Office with nothing to do, waiting to be invited to a meeting? Olmert promised Ramon that he would feel that he is crucial to the country. But Ramon is very uneasy. For an entire week, he tried to convince Olmert that the solution was bad for both of them, that Olmert would be better off without him, that his undefined presence in the government would generate friction with key ministers like Barak and Tzipi Livni. Olmert was not convinced. He promised him that he would let Ramon deal with his favorite issues, like the West Bank separation fence and the illegal outposts. But Ramon knows Barak won't let him get close to these issues, which fall under the Defense Ministry's jurisdiction. It would be a lot easier for him to nip into Livni's territory every once in a while: a meeting with a senior Palestinian official here, a covert trip to a European capital there.
For the most part, Ramon will get involved with politics and will help Olmert act properly until the final Winograd report on the Second Lebanon War comes out, and afterward. In every post he has filled, even as minister without portfolio, Ramon has had some agenda. For the first time in his political life, he doesn't have one, aside from assisting Olmert on political matters as well as those related to the coalition and the prime minister's personal affairs. Ramon does want the finance ministry portfolio, because that is an office with an agenda. At first Olmert also wanted him at the treasury, but the premier and his associates decided the day after the Sharm el-Sheikh summit that Ramon should not get that appointment due to public outcry it would generate in the wake of Ramon's conviction for forcibly kissing a female soldier.
Then the scampering began. Olmert offered Ramon the Interior Ministry, in addition to the title of deputy prime minister. Ramon refused; the Interior Ministry doesn't interest him. He did that already, seven years ago. Other portfolios didn't speak to him either. After 25 years in politics, he's not just looking to survive, just to be there. He very much wants to quit and go into business, to take a break from politics for a year or two, but when Olmert called him Wednesday morning and told him, more or less in these words, "I've been your friend, now you be my friend," Ramon took a deep breath, got dressed and went to the Knesset.
Pay attention to Ehud Barak. He's been defense minister for nearly three weeks and his presence is barely felt. He isn't giving interviews and isn't dealing with certain issues related to security, like the government decision to release 250 Palestinian prisoners or last week's Sharm summit. In the cabinet meeting Wednesday held to confirm the new ministerial appointments, he sat next to Olmert with a sour face, voted in favor and fled the Knesset. The next day, he told Maariv that Ramon's appointment was "ethically and politically problematic."
This is Barak's way of keeping his distance from the Olmert government, of which he is a key component. He conveys a kind of revulsion toward this government, which wouldn't exist without him. He sees it as being too early to clash with the prime minister directly, so he voted for the Ramon appointment - at the same time he spoke out against it. If the appointment had only come to a vote in another few months, he would have voted against it. It's all a matter of timing.
Barak is deep in the midst of a campaign for prime minister. He knows what every child knows - that the Olmert government is not popular, to say the least, and that the next election, like the one in 1999 in which he defeated Benjamin Netanyahu, will turn on the need for "change." So he's trying to create an alternative from within the government, while distancing himself from it as much as possible. In the meantime, this is a low-intensity operation, but it will go into high gear.
There are two schools of thought regarding what Barak should do after the final Winograd report comes out, which is expected to take place in another four months. One view holds that Barak should cause the government to collapse and go to elections as soon as the report comes out. The other view holds that Barak should complete at least a year in the Defense Ministry before he asks the public to put its confidence in him again. Barak is leaving both options open. At the beginning of the week, he told the Labor Party's central committee that he remains committed to the promise he made at a press conference with MK Ophir Pines-Paz on the eve of the party primary, when he said he would quit when the final report comes out. All the same, he didn't actually repeat the promise. Those who understood, understood; those who remembered, remembered; and those who forgot, forgot.
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