Kadima Leader-elect Livni: Barak Will Be a 'Full Partner' in My Government

If Labor Party leader Ehud Barak agrees to join a government under her leadership, he will be made "a full partner," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in private conversations yesterday.

Livni, who is expected to be handed the task of forming a new government by President Shimon Peres today, told associates that despite her sometimes strained relations with the Labor leader in the past, she believes they should set aside their differences for the sake of the country. "After all, Barak is someone who cares about the nation's welfare," one associate quoted her as saying, a few hours before she and Barak began a late-night negotiating session.

Livni and her aides said they did not know whether Barak would agree to join a government with her as prime minister, but they did not think the Labor leader was in any hurry to hold new elections.

Regarding the terms under which a new coalition government will be formed, Livni's aides said she is willing to drop her previous demand that the core elements of the existing coalition agreement be preserved. Rather, they said, she is now willing to reach a new agreement with Barak.

However, they refused to discuss whether she would agree to remove Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann from office. Labor has consistently opposed the judicial reforms proposed by Friedmann, which have drawn much criticism from past and present Supreme Court justices.

The foreign minister said that she would try to form a coalition quickly, and if she reached the conclusion that doing so was impossible, she would dissolve the Knesset and call new elections.

Barak, for his part, is expected to demand that Livni publicly pledge that any government she forms will remain in office for at least a year and a half, and not just for a few months. He will also ask Livni to make changes to the 2009 budget recently approved by the cabinet, even before a coalition agreement is signed.

Meanwhile, Livni is also trying to cope with the political turmoil in her own party - namely, Shaul Mofaz's announcement that he is taking a time-out from public life following his narrow loss to the foreign minister in last week's Kadima leadership primary. Mofaz's acrimonious departure leaves a vacuum in the party, which has already lost many of its founding fathers (former prime minister Ariel Sharon, President Shimon Peres, Prof. Uriel Reichman), a mere three years after its formation.

Another notable Kadima member who has been considering retirement is Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who is a close personal friend of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Livni plans to meet with Ramon today and try to convince him not to retire from politics.

Last Friday, Ramon urged Livni not to insist that Olmert resign immediately, telling her it would be better for the party if coalition talks were held while he was still in office. Speaking off the record, other party members said yesterday that Ramon was right, and Livni is already getting bogged down in the negotiations - a situation they said could have been avoided.

Livni had hoped that, bolstered by a sweeping primary victory, she would be able to form a new coalition easily. Instead, she beat Mofaz by only a few hundred votes, leaving her in a much weaker opening position. Her hope of persuading Olmert to declare himself temporarily incapacitated, which would have automatically made her acting premier for 100 days, also fell through.

Now, therefore, she will need need to make budgetary concessions to Labor and Shas to form a new government, while also trying to thwart a deal between Barak and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.