Coalition Talks to Begin Sunday; Labor, Shas Make Demands

Olmert tapped to form coalition; Labor: Open Gaza crossings; Shas: Keep Reichman away from education.

Official coalition talks are slated to begin Sunday at the Kfar Hamaccabiah Hotel in Ramat Gan, after President Moshe Katsav officially tapped Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to form the next government.

The Kadima team will meet first with Labor, followed by Shas, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. On Monday, talks are scheduled with the Pensioners' Party, United Torah Judaism and Meretz-Yachad.

Haim Ramon is Ehud Olmert's preferred candidate for justice minister. According to senior Kadima members, Olmert wants to keep the justice portfolio in-house and wants Ramon to occupy an influential cabinet post.

Meanwhile, Labor and Shas have given an indication of the kind of problems Olmert will face in forming what he called "the most stable coalition possible," based on withdrawing unilaterally from large areas of the West Bank and setting Israel's final borders by 2010.

Olmert's "convergence plan" involves keeping a hold on settlement blocs while evacuating other West Bank settlements.

"These plans will be the basis of the government's operations," Olmert said. "I believe this is also known to all the potential partners and there is no doubt we will act in this way."

The Labor Party decided Thursday to demand that the government guidelines state that Israel will work to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the territories by opening the crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip and ending the siege on Gaza. The subject was raised by Labor MKs Ophir Pines-Paz and Ephraim Sneh.

And Shas officials are adamantly opposed to Prof. Uriel Reichman being appointed education minister.

Senior Shas officials said in private discussions with Labor and Kadima that if Reichman, a former Shinui activist, were appointed to the position promised him by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it could spell a return to the coalition crises that plagued the cabinet when Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid served in the post.

Shas termed statements by Reichman about the ultra-Orthodox "problematic," and warned that appointing him would necessitate demands by Shas to prevent Reichman from undermining its education system.

Shas is not thrilled with the Labor candidate for the post, Prof. Yuli Tamir, but Shas officials said that at least Tamir had supported expanding the school-lunch program to ultra-Orthodox schools.

Kadima sources said they believed Labor would ultimately get the education portfolio.

Olmert to meet MubarakOlmert's office announced Thursday that he would meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as soon as the government was formed. Mubarak telephoned Olmert on Thursday to congratulate him.

Olmert, who has served as acting premier since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke on January 4, has 28 days to try to put together a governing coalition of at least 61 Knesset members. If he fails, he can ask for a two-week extension.

"I will try as much as possible to end this process as quickly as possible," Olmert said.

Katsav told reporters that 78 members of the 120-member Knesset recommended that he pick Olmert to be the next prime minister.

Coalition talks between Kadima and other parties began days ago. The coalition agreement between Olmert and Peretz prevents Labor from vetoing Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman as a partner in the government, despite a Peretz pre-election pledge that Labor would not join a coalition that included the far-right party.

But a senior Labor official warned this week that the moment a large-scale evacuation from the West Bank begins, Lieberman will resign and drag the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism in his wake.

The official said Olmert has a better coalition option on hand - a government made up of Kadima, Labor, the Pensioners' Party and Meretz-Yachad (60 seats), with the addition of Shas and UTJ for a total of 78 seats.