Ramon Offered Vice PM Post in Reshuffle

MK Haim Ramon will apparently rejoin the government in the role of vice premier, following a day of concerted efforts by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his staff to persuade him to take the post.

Ramon will give Olmert his final answer today. But Olmert's aides said that since the decision is expected to be positive, Olmert should be able to meet with Kadima Party ministers and MKs today to inform them of their new jobs under a major cabinet reshuffle. He will then convene the cabinet to approve the appointments, after which they will go to the Knesset for ratification.

Olmert had planned to announce the reshuffle yesterday, but had to postpone it after Ramon initially rejected Olmert's offer, terming it so inappropriate that he would rather quit politics altogether, and then demanded a day to think it over.

Ramon was forced to resign as justice minister after being indicted for forcibly kissing a female soldier. His conviction made it impossible for him to return to his former job, and Olmert wanted Roni Bar-On in the Finance Ministry, which was Ramon's preferred substitute. However, Ramon initially expressed interest in the alternative that Olmert proposed, under which he would become vice premier in place of President-elect Shimon Peres, be a member of the diplomatic-security cabinet, and serve as a minister in the Prime Minister's Office with diplomatic responsibilities, "influence and a direct line to the premier." He even spoke with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni about the proposal a few days ago, and the two were apparently ready to cooperate.

Yesterday, however, Ramon discovered that his diplomatic responsibilities, especially with regard to negotiations with the Palestinians, were very unclear, and also seemed to contradict understandings that Olmert had reached with Livni about her responsibilities. Ramon said that he was unwilling to enter the government under those circumstances, and if that was the best that Olmert could offer, he would rather just quit politics.

Olmert then suggested that instead of the position in the Prime Minister's Office, Ramon take the Negev and Galilee development portfolio that Peres is vacating. But Ramon was not thrilled by that offer, either, and demanded time to consider his options.

That sparked a day-long campaign of persuasion by Olmert and his aides, which finally appeared to reap success late last night.

Meanwhile, however, other Kadima members have been in the dark and, unable to obtain any answers from Olmert's office, have been relying mainly on journalists for information. The result has been a flourishing rumor mill that exacerbated tensions among those who are hoping for promotion. Minister without Portfolio Jacob Edery, for instance, wants the Interior Ministry, and when he heard reports that Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim would get the job instead, Edery informed Olmert that he refused to replace Boim in the Absorption Ministry.

Though the new cabinet line-up has not been formally announced, it appears to be as follows: Bar-On will get the Finance Ministry; Boim will replace him as interior minister; Edery will be offered the Absorption Ministry in Boim's stead; and MK Ruhama Avraham will replace Edery as minister without portfolio, with responsibility for Jerusalem and for liaising between the cabinet and the Knesset. Olmert also plans to appoint MK David Tal as coalition chairman, while two other contenders for promotion, MKs Yoel Hasson and Majalli Whbee, will be compensated with chairmanships of Knesset committees.

The big loser is Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit, who was passed over for both his first-choice post, finance, and his second choice, interior. Some of Olmert's aides had advised him to give Sheetrit the Interior Ministry, but Olmert preferred Boim, who is one of his loyalists. Sheetrit, in contrast, is a rival: He intends to run for Kadima's leadership. And since the Interior Ministry, which controls the local authorities, is a major source of political patronage, Olmert considered it unwise to give it to a rival.

Sheetrit, whom Olmert had already passed over for promotion twice before, is furious, and he has informed the prime minister that this time, he will not go quietly. Barring last-minute changes in the line-up, Sheetrit intends to become a vocal member of Kadima's internal opposition, which is currently headless. As an experienced politician, he could easily become its leader. And he might well be able to draw in others, such as Edery, who are also upset by the results of the cabinet reshuffle.