Olmert Meets Peres to Discuss Continuing Sharon's Policies

Acting PM set to offer Peres a ministry to keep him in Kadima; Peres: We haven't given up on the vision.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with MK Shimon Peres on Friday morning to discuss the future of the Kadima party and the continuing of policies that Kadima's founder, Ariel Sharon, began.

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The policies include "an unrelenting war on terror, as well as an unending effort in the direction of the peace process," he said. Peres said everyone sees Sharon as a key figure, not just because of what he has done, but because of the hope that he would have been able to continue along the same path.

Olmert wanted to assure Peres that he is a valued member of Kadima, even in a post-Sharon era. Olmert's move comes as an effort to block any attempt by Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz to return Peres to Labor.

Olmert, who in his capacity as acting premier has the authority to appoint ministers, was also expected to offer Peres a ministry to ensure he remains in Kadima. One possibility on the cards is naming Peres deputy prime minister, with responsibility for developing the Negev and the Galilee.

The meeting was interrupted by reports that Sharon was being rushed to the operating room for emergency surgery. Peres said he and Olmert had agreed to meet again next week, and said he saw similarities between himself and the acting prime minister.

"I got the impression that neither Ehud nor I have given up on the hope, the vision and the possibilities - without getting stuck in delusions," said Peres.

Olmert's associates said before the meeting that he viewed Friday's meeting with Peres as critical, as he understands that should Peres return to Labor, other Kadima members might follow suit and return to their former parties. "Olmert already spoke with Peres by telephone yesterday and stressed the importance of cooperation between them," one said Thursday.

Former Likud members in Kadima said that they had also been contacted by senior Likud officials urging them to return to Likud. But one of them, Tzachi Hanegbi, insisted that such urgings were pointless. "There is no way back - certainly not at this time," Hanegbi said.

All of Kadima's senior members lined up solidly behind Olmert on Thursday, and he in turn worked hard to ensure their continuing loyalty. He held a personal meeting with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, with whom his relations have been strained recently due to their competition over Kadima's number two slot, and Livni promised to help him stabilize both the party and the government. She also promised not to challenge him for the position of Kadima's prime ministerial candidate should Sharon not return.

Olmert also met Thursday with Kadima ministers Abraham Hirchson, Meir Sheetrit and Shaul Mofaz, all of whom pledged their support to him, saying they understood that a leadership battle would be disastrous for the party. Former Labor MKs Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik echoed this message. "Olmert is doing his job faithfully, and we must not place obstacles in his path," Itzik said.

Sheetrit, who aroused his party's ire Thursday morning when he suggested that the faction meet within 48 hours to choose a new leader, later backtracked and joined the chorus of support for Olmert.

Sharon's advisors also promised Olmert their backing.

But despite this unified front, many questions remain about how Kadima will choose its Knesset slate and conduct its affairs. The party's by-laws authorize Sharon, and Sharon only, to make all party decisions, including drawing up Kadima's Knesset slate - something he had yet to do prior to his stroke. Moreover, the by-laws do not specify any party institution that is authorized to choose a replacement for Sharon.

However, they do define a party council, comprised of all party founders who are MKs or ministers, as its highest institution. This presumably means the 14 former Likud MKs who originally established Kadima, and they will presumably choose Sharon's successor. That person will then assume all of Sharon's powers, including the right to choose the party's Knesset slate.