Despite No-confidence Vote, Olmert Won't Dismiss Labor Ministers

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not fire Labor ministers, whose party backed a no-confidence motion yesterday. For its part, Labor said the ministers would not quit the coalition, leaving an uneasy calm after the latest crisis to threaten the government.

In a statement by the Prime Minister's Office later in the day, Olmert accused the Labor Party of reneging on previous agreements signed with Kadima, but hinted that he would not make good on his threat to dismiss the ministers if they voted against the government.

Dismissing the Labor ministers would leave Olmert without a legislative majority and open the door to early elections.

By rejecting the appointments of Kadima MKs Ruhama Avraham-Balila and Eli Aflalo as tourism and absorption ministers, Labor MKs and ministers supported what was declared a no-confidence vote at the insistence of the Likud faction whip, MK Gideon Sa'ar.

The government, however, survived the no-confidence vote, and despite Labor's opposition, Aflalo's and Avraham-Balila's appointments were approved by a Knesset majority of 47 votes to 42.

The crisis erupted when Kadima reneged on Olmert's commitment to Labor to appoint MK Avishai Braverman chairman of the Knesset's Finance Committee. Labor decided in response to oppose Aflalo and Avraham-Balila's appointments in the Knesset.

MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor) charged Olmert and Kadima's people with "lying and violating a commitment. It's a disgrace."

Labor went ahead and voted against the government, even after Likud declared the move a no-confidence vote, enabling Olmert to fire their ministers if he wanted.

But acting coalition whip MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) said that "we won't fall into that trap and won't fire anyone."

He said Kadima would make every effort to get Braverman appointed Finance Committee chairman this week, as Olmert had promised. Hasson himself will probably be appointed coalition whip.

Olmert issued a statement after the Knesset vote reiterating his commitment to Braverman's appointment and that he would act to "ensure the appointment is approved as early as [Tuesday]."

Labor Secretary-General MK Eitan Cabel declined to say what Labor would do if the move was sabotaged yet again.

Ultra-Orthodox party Shas objects adamantly to Braverman's appointment due to Labor's veto on increasing child allowances. Shas faction whip Yaakov Margi said yesterday that if Braverman's appointment is approved Shas would "adopt Labor's conduct and do as it pleased."

The majority in favor of the Aflalo and Avraham-Balila appointments was achieved because several MKs from Arab factions, Yisrael Beiteinu and Justice for Pensioners were absent. Yisrael Beiteinu and the Arab factions had made deals with the coalition not to oppose the appointments.

The Arab factions kept away after their bill to revoke the merger of several Arab local authorities passed the First Knesset reading. Yisrael Beiteinu's MKs stayed away in exchange for keeping their party member Stas Misezhnikov as Finance Committee chairman. The members of Justice for Pensioners absented themselves after their bill for increasing old-age stipends was approved.

The vote's outcome sparked speculation about whether Olmert, who is facing an ever-deepening corruption probe, would dismiss Labor ministers who voted no-confidence, as he had threatened to do. Such a step would leave him without a legislative majority and open the door to early elections.

"We took into account that Olmert might fire us. But we had no choice, we had to show him that we're not afraid of taking an extreme move. Olmert is living on borrowed time. In two months he won't be prime minister anyway," a Labor minister said after the vote.

At the Labor Party's faction meeting yesterday, Labor chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak blasted the prime minister's conduct, accusing him of reneging on previous agreements. Barak said that "an invisible hand changed all the deals we agreed on with the prime minister."

Labor announced that it would support the no-confidence motion, which was called by Likud, and oppose the ministerial appointments.

MK Haim Oron (Meretz) demanded in the Knesset that the cabinet reveal the deals it had made with factions and MKs who promised to support the ministerial appointments. He said that if any agreements involving money had been made they were against the law.

Ramon denied that the cabinet had made any agreements or any promises involving payment.

"I asked the finance minister if he had made an oral agreement and he said he hadn't," Ramon said.

Labor is the main loser after yesterday's developments, since Braverman was not appointed Finance Committee chairman. Thirteen committee members voted against his appointment, while five supported it.

MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) said that not since a Roman Emperor "appointed his horse a consul has there been such a farce as Aflalo's appointment."

Aflalo, who became an MK in 2003, had served nine months as coalition whip. At the end of 2005, TheMarker reported that Aflalo and Avraham Balila went on a study tour to the United States and Europe at Agrexco's expense without the Knesset's Ethics Committee's permission. They subsequently returned the money to the company.