Olmert Seeks Quick Approval of Treasury Pick

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hopes the cabinet and Knesset will approve his new finance minister tomorrow, immediately after he announces his choice. The leading candidates are Interior Minister Roni Bar-On and MK Haim Ramon. Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit is also still in the running, though his chances are considered slim.

Olmert plans to devote much of his time today to finalizing his cabinet reshuffle. In addition to choosing a new finance minister, he must pick a replacement for President-elect Shimon Peres, who formerly held the Negev and Galilee development portfolio, and a new coalition chairman. MK David Tal is considered the leading candidate for the latter post, despite being part of the internal opposition to Olmert within Kadima.

Meanwhile, Olmert associates confirmed a report in yesterday's Yedioth Ahronoth that the prime minister has also been talking with Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu about bringing Likud into the government. In that case, Netanyahu would get either the treasury or the Foreign Ministry. Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik (Kadima) has been the chief negotiator, but Olmert and Netanyahu also met personally Sunday.

Netanyahu did not inform his faction of that meeting, but after it became public knowledge, he insisted that it was merely a standard briefing on diplomatic and security affairs to which he is entitled as leader of the opposition. However, sources close to the Likud leader said that political issues did arise "on the margins" of the discussion.

Netanyahu also denied that he is considering entering the government, saying he remains committed to toppling it. But the Yedioth report, coupled with his failure to inform his faction of the Sunday meeting with Olmert, has outraged Likud MKs. Despite Netanyahu's denials, many still suspect that he is negotiating with Olmert behind their backs.

"Why did he try to hide the meeting with Olmert?" demanded one. "If everything was innocent, why didn't he inform us?"

At yesterday's Likud faction meeting, the MKs made it clear to Netanyahu that there is sweeping opposition in the party to the idea of joining the government. They also criticized him for having issued his denial only several hours after the Yedioth report appeared, rather than immediately.

"All such statements help Olmert because they send the message that the Likud has despaired of toppling the government," said MK Silvan Shalom, who heads the opposition to Netanyahu within Likud.

At the end of the meeting, the faction voted unanimously for a resolution. "The Likud faction is united in its opinion that the Olmert government's continued tenure has no moral validity. It will continue to work from the opposition to topple [the government], and will not join it," Likud said.