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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Labor chairman Ehud Barak intend to decide on Tuesday or Wednesday who will fill the vacancies in the cabinet after their top candidates for the posts turned them down.
Olmert will choose a finance minister between Interior Minister Roni Bar-On and MK Haim Ramon after Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu made it clear that he was not interested in the position. Barak is expected to make Labor MK Orit Noked a minister-without-portfolio after MKs Ami Ayalon and Amir Peretz decided not to join the cabinet.
Netanyahu vowed to remain opposition leader, despite reports that Olmert was seriously considering making him an offer to become finance minister. Olmert and Netanyahu met secretly on Sunday night, but both sides insisted that only diplomatic and security issues and the visits of the two men to Washington were discussed.
"The finance minister will be named Roni Bar-On or Haim Ramon, not Binyamin Netanyahu," he said in closed conversations.
A senior Likud source dismissed headlines about Netanyahu possibly joining the government as political spin by Olmert's associates. He said that joining Olmert's government would be like "fixing a tire on a car that can't drive." But other political sources said Netanyahu would have joined the government had Olmert offered to make him defense minister instead of Barak. The sources said Netanyahu was interested in blocking Barak's comeback and being in charge of national security, but he was not interested in returning to the Finance Ministry, so when Barak became defense minister the window of opportunity for Netanyahu to join the government closed.
Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik pushed for a national-unity government in a speech at the Knesset, saying it would "strengthen Israel in the face of the challenges ahead and greaten our chances of diplomatic progress and of returning our kidnapped soldiers."
The Likud faction passed a statement calling for all the parties to agree on a date for early elections "to save the country from the paralysis of the Olmert government." The statement said the Likud would remain "a fighting opposition and a national alternative."
Olmert met on Monday morning with Bar-On and on Friday with Ramon and discussed the vacancy in the Finance Ministry. Ramon reportedly threatened Olmert that if he were not given the Finance portfolio or a "senior diplomatic post," he would quit politics.
If Olmert makes Ramon a minister-without-portfolio and promotes Bar-On, it would set off a chain reaction of promotions that would likely result in Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit becoming interior minister and perhaps Minister-without-Portfolio Ya'acov Edri replacing Sheetrit. MKs Ruhama Avraham or Majallie Whbee could end up joining the government as a minister-without-portfolio.
Meanwhile in Labor, Ayalon officially informed Barak on Monday that he was not interested in replacing Education Minister Yuli Tamir or becoming a minister-without-portfolio. Earlier, Ayalon met with Peretz, who persuaded him to not seek Tamir's portfolio, and Tamir met with Barak, who told her that her job was not endangered.
Ayalon's associates said he decided not to become a minister because he did not want to join the government without his ally, MK Avishay Braverman, and because Barak convinced him that general elections would be held soon. Ayalon and Barak sparred verbally at Labor's faction meeting on Monday when Ayalon accused Barak of not listening to him when he was speaking.
Sources close to Barak said he tried everything possible to persuade Ayalon to join the government but he did not succeed. After both Peretz and Ayalon decided against replacing MK Eitan Cabel as a minister-without-portfolio in charge of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Barak is expected to offer the post to MK Orit Noked, who represents the United Kibbutz Movement in the Labor faction and worked hard on Barak's election campaign.
Had Ayalon accepted the Education portfolio, Tamir would have been demoted to the Science, Culture and Sport Ministry and Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle would have become a minister-without-portfolio. Majadle said Barak promised him he would keep his post.
"I don't want a promotion or a demotion," Majadle said. "I want to stay in the Science, Culture and Sport Ministry, which has had enough new ministers lately."