Ehud Olmert: Kadima Will Keep Interior Ministry Portfolio

UTJ sages to rule if West Bank withdrawal plan is obstacle to joining Kadima-led government.

Prime Minister-designate Ehud Olmert told local authority heads Monday that he plans to appoint a Kadima member to run the Interior Ministry.

The local authority heads at the meeting, who have all joined Kadima, said it was important to keep the portfolio in the hands of the party. The municipal leaders named Haim Ramon and Ministers Ze'ev Boim and Meir Sheetrit as possible candidates for the post.

Also Monday, Olmert met with the Kadima negotiation team to discuss the first round of coalition talks. Negotiations thus far indicate that the new government will not include either Meretz-Yachad or the Likud, which made an official announcement Monday saying that it would not join a government whose main agenda is a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.

It appears that the Labor Party, the Pensioners Party, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and United Torah Judaism are inching closer to joining the government, even though the coalition guidelines have yet to be written. Kadima made progress with the Pensioners and UTJ Monday, and will hold a second meeting with Labor officials Tuesday.

Likud faction chairman MK Gideon Sa'ar told the head of the Kadima negotiation team, Yoram Turbowicz, Monday evening that the Likud had decided that the gap between the two parties on political-security issues was substantial, and that the Likud must serve its voters and the nation in the opposition.

Meretz-Yachad faction members said after meeting with Kadima officials Monday that there was only a slim chance the left-wing party would join the coalition, although the parties' negotiation teams are scheduled for another meeting. Meretz-Yachad negotiators have been informed that Olmert wants the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party to join the government, and Meretz-Yachad refuses to sit in government with Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman.

Meretz-Yachad negotiators said Yisrael Beiteinu's joining the coalition would hinder the government from implementing its political objectives. MK Ran Cohen, who heads the negotiation team, said that unlike Yisrael Beiteinu, Meretz-Yachad could be a stable, serious and important component of the coalition.

Kadima plans to advance talks with all the potential coalition partners, while committing to make Labor a senior partner. Kadima has presented its political platform clearly, indicating that the coalition will not include parties that do not accept the basic concept of the convergence plan as described in Olmert's victory speech. Kadima negotiators said there will be no coalition that includes opposition to this.

Kadima sources said any gaps between it and future coalition partners could be resolved and that the parties could come to an agreement on coalition guidelines within 10 days.

Kadima officials are under the impression that Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu will be flexible regarding the coalition guidelines even though they oppose unilateral withdrawal, and said they think the two parties will even agree to guidelines stating that the government plans to act unilaterally before the end of U.S. President George W. Bush's term of office in January 2009.

Regarding Labor's demand that the minimum wage be raised to $1,000, Kadima officials said the minimum wage would increase, but not to that extent. Kadima officials also said that Shas and UTJ have said they are prepared to find a solution to the problem of people prevented from getting married in Israel, as long as the solution does not impinge on Jewish law.

UTJ sages to weigh withdrawal planThe United Torah Judaism rabbinical sages will decide whether Ehud Olmert's plan to withdraw from parts of the West Bank will be a stumbling block to the ultra-Orthodox party's inclusion in the coalition, UTJ lawmaker Moshe Gafni said Monday.

Gafni was speaking as he and fellow UTJ lawmakers Ya'akov Litzman and Menachem Porush emerged from the first round of coalition talks with Kadima, whose leader, Olmert, has been tapped by President Moshe Katsav to form the next government.

The MKs expressed satisfaction with negotiationsand said they received the impression that Kadima wants them to join the government. They also expressed the belief that all disagreements would be resolved, clearing the way for the party to join the new government.

MK Avraham Ravitz, who also represents UTJ in the negotiations, said his party had asked that financial assistance to the ultra-Orthodox sector would be "entirely transparent and open."

Ultra-Orthodox parties have been traditionally perceived by the Israeli public as corrupt for the undercover financial assistance they secure for their constituency in return for their support of the government.

Ravitz added that the party is yet to decide if it will make do with deputy-ministerial positions, as it has in previous coalitions.

Yisrael Beitenu claims to advances on civil marriageKadima launched coalition talks Sunday morning at Kfar Maccabiah, outside Tel Aviv with Labor, Shas, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu representatives. Yisrael Beiteinu officials claimed that advances were made in the talks regarding civil marriage, which would allow official recognition of couples who cannot marry in a religious ceremony.

Attorney Yoav Mani, who heads Yisrael Beiteinu's coalition negotiations team, said that "many agreements and a joint vision on social and economic matters, as well as on civil marriage" were achieved at the meeting. He termed civil marriage as a human, rather than political, problem that requires an urgent solution.

On Saturday night, Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman told Russian television that a civil marriage law is the first condition for joining the coalition.

Sunday's negotiations also dealt with Yisrael Beiteinu's proposal to alter the national insurance law. In a joint statement after the meeting, Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu said that ideas were exchanged regarding the wording of coalition guidelines, and that they would meet again next week.