Labor: New Gov't Is Beginning of End for PM

Yesterday's cabinet reshuffle merely starts the countdown to the end of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's term, several Labor Party ministers said after the cabinet and Knesset approved the new appointments. And newly appointed Vice Premier Haim Ramon will be the one who leads the process, they said.

The Labor ministers argued that Ramon's appointment, which includes vaguely defined responsibilities in the diplomatic and security realms, was a mistake because it will lead to friction with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. This in turn will destabilize the government, they said.

They also charged Ramon with being quarrelsome and a plotter, further increasing the potential for friction.

In response, senior members of Olmert's Kadima Party said Labor should stop making threats.

"It's in the government, and its chairman [Barak] has proven by his entry that he is very interested in being a member of this government," said one.

Olmert's associates insisted that Ramon's appointment was actually critical to stabilizing the government, and denied that it would cause friction with Barak and Livni, as Ramon's responsibilities will not overlap with theirs.

Olmert finally completed his long-awaited cabinet reshuffle following multiple delays - of which the latest was caused by Ramon's refusal on Tuesday to join the cabinet, which he reversed less than 24 hours later. The reorganization is meant to bolster the government's political stability. And though many Kadima ministers and MKs assailed Olmert for his handling of the process before yesterday, most of them ended up happy with the results.

Yesterday morning, Olmert held a series of meetings with Kadima ministers and MKs where he finalized his new line-up, which he presented to the cabinet for approval at about noon.

As expected, Olmert loyalist Roni Bar-On was appointed finance minister. Less expected was the appointment of Meir Sheetrit to replace Bar-On at the Interior Ministry. Since that ministry oversees the local authorities, it is a major source of political patronage, and Olmert was initially reluctant to entrust it to a political rival. However, a disappointed Sheetrit could have become a major focus of internal opposition to Olmert with Kadima, so the premier ultimately decided it would be better not to push him too far.

Ze'ev Boim will replace Sheetrit at the Housing Ministry, and Jacob Edery will replace Boim at the Absorption Ministry. Edery also received the Negev and Galilee development portfolio, which President-elect Shimon Peres is vacating.

Ruhama Avraham, who formerly chaired the Knesset House Committee, will replace Edery as minister without portfolio with responsibility for Jerusalem affairs and liaising between the cabinet and Knesset.

And Ramon, who resigned from the cabinet several months ago after being indicted for forcibly kissing a female soldier, is rejoining it as vice premier, a position formerly held by Peres. Ramon will also serve as a member of the diplomatic-security cabinet and as a minister in the Prime Minister's Office with diplomatic-security responsibilities, including dealing with the separation fence and illegal settlement outposts.

Olmert also considered appointing several deputy ministers to appease some of the MKs who were not promoted. After Labor objected vehemently, he shelved the idea, but has not discarded it completely.

With the cabinet reshuffle completed, Olmert will now embark on a round of Knesset appointments, including a new coalition chair and a new House Committee chair to replace Avraham.