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Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has come a long way since the country was handed to him on a silver platter when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered his January 4 stroke.
Olmert ran the country in a challenging time; he built a new party that was created in Sharon's image; and he led it to victory in Tuesday's election. But he still has a short distance left to go before he can achieve his goal of becoming prime minister.
He cannot yet make the big move one seat over at the cabinet table to Sharon's chair, which has remained symbolically empty since his incapacitation. He cannot move his office from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry to the nearby Prime Minister's Office, nor can he move from his Jerusalem home to the prime minister's residence just six blocks away.
That distance appears very short, but it is a minefield full of potential challenges. After President Moshe Katsav, as expected, designates him to form a government next week, Olmert will have four weeks and a possible additional two to build a coalition, while balancing the egos in his own Kadima party.
Once the government is formed, Olmert will have 45 days to pass the 2006 state budget or new elections would be held automatically three months later. Only after he overcomes those obstacles will Olmert be able to devote his full attention to the challenges that lie ahead of selling his convergence plan to Israelis and the world, fighting terror and the ultimate goal of every politician: winning the next election and staying in power.
Construction, Housing, Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Ze'ev Boim, who is a childhood friend of Olmert's from Binyamina, said that Olmert learned how to face challenges from their early days playing soccer and marbles.
"Being an athlete gave him the ambition to win and the ability to absorb a loss," Boim said. "He always found ways to overcome obstacles to reach the top; and even though he focuses on the mission at hand, he was always looking to succeed at the next challenge."
TO THAT end, during the election campaign, Olmert already sent out feelers to his most likely coalition partners: Labor, Shas and United Torah Judaism, and held preliminary talks with the most likely candidates to be ministers from Kadima.
But Kadima's downfall from the 40 mandates polls were predicting a month ago to the 29 seats it ended up with will make it much harder to build the kind of stable and homogenous coalition needed to pursue the major changes he intends to make in Israel's borders, system of government and societal fabric.
Even when it was anticipated that Kadima would win by a landslide, Olmert was already expected to have a difficult time assigning portfolios. There are at least 15 Kadima officials who expect to be ministers, including nine current Kadima ministers, deputy minister Marina Solodkin, former ministers Shimon Peres, Dalia Itzik and Haim Ramon, and new candidates Avi Dichter and Uriel Reichman.
With 29 seats, Olmert will have no more than 10 portfolios available for members of his party, plus the prestigious post of Knesset speaker. This means that at least four Kadima leaders who took a risk by leaving their own party will end up empty-handed.
Olmert is bound to make more enemies when he decides whom to promote and whom to demote. Education and Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, for instance, is likely to lose out to Olmert's longtime ally, Tourism Minister Avraham Hirchson, for the Finance Ministry. And Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz knows his days in the post are numbered.
UNLIKE IN Labor, where the ministers are expected to be elected in the party's central committee, Kadima's portfolios will be distributed the same way its Knesset list was decided - by one man sitting in the Prime Minister's Office. With an election ahead, the Kadima candidates took their placement in stride, but they will be more likely to protest if their cabinet aspirations are not met.
The first victim is expected 5
o be former Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center president Uriel Reichman, who left the institution he founded for a promise from Sharon that he would be Israel's next education minister. He said from the start that he was not interested in any other position.
But Reichman already fulfilled his purpose. Sharon brought him to Kadima to take votes away from Shinui, which he helped found. Olmert knows that he will not be able to bring Labor into the coalition without giving the Education Ministry to Labor's Yuli Tamir.
Finance and Education were Labor's two major portfolio demands. Olmert has insisted that the Treasury must remain with the ruling party, so parting with the Education Ministry is inevitable.
In a prospective 74-MK coalition of Kadima, Labor, Shas, United Torah Judaism and the Gil Pensioners Party, there would be some 23 ministers based on a formula of some three MKs per portfolio. Kadima is expected to hold onto the Finance, Foreign Affairs, Internal Security and Immigrant Absorption portfolios, as well as control over the Israel Lands Administration.
Kadima's negotiating team will try to persuade Labor chairman Amir Peretz to become defense minister, the easiest of the three most important portfolios for Kadima to give up. The Justice Ministry is also expected to be part of Labor's package and will likely go to the party's number two, attorney Isaac Herzog, even though the portfolio is sought after by Kadima's Haim Ramon and Roni Bar-On.
Shas's top demand, as always, will be the Interior Ministry, which is currently controlled by deputy minister Ruhama Avraham. But Kadima officials said that it is important for a new party like Kadima to hold the portfolio because of its control over the municipalities and important issues connected to the character of the state.
The Health Ministry will likely go to Shas's candidate, former National Insurance Institute director Yohanan Stessman. But the ministry could end up being the central demand of the Gil Pensioners Party, which also wants a new seniors affairs ministry to be formed that would be headed by its leader, 79-year-old Rafael Eitan.
United Torah Judaism will as usual control the Knesset Finance Committee. With its jump from five to six MKs, the party will demand a better portfolio than the Social Affairs Ministry that is currently led by deputy minister Avraham Ravitz.
There is still a chance that Israel Beiteinu will join the coalition and an outside possibility for Meretz. Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman wants to be internal security minister, a position expected to go to Dichter.
Meretz's Yossi Beilin has expressed an interest in the Environment Ministry, but sources close to Olmert said he does not want the party in the coalition because he does not want the government to be perceived as too left-wing. Meretz could support Olmert's plans to withdraw from the West Bank from outside the coalition along with the Arab parties The party can always be added to the coalition later, if Shas leaves.
Olmert still has a week before coalition talks formally begin. During that time, he can enjoy his victory and save up strength for the many challenges that lie ahead.