(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Who won and who lost, and what roles will the new and renewed ministers play following the largest reshuffle of Ehud Olmert's government, 15 months after its inception?
Should we take seriously Ramon's rescinded threat to retire from political life upon not getting the Finance portfolio? His disappointment was real enough. Ramon wasn't just after rehabilitation following his conviction of an indecent act that took place exactly a year ago. He wanted finally to prove himself capable not only of complex political machinations but also of managing a serious cabinet post. So far his ministerial terms have all been short and without significant achievements. Since he lost his job as justice minister, he was yearning for another, perhaps last chance.
Olmert would have given him the job. But his advisers' misgivings over the expected public uproar, especially in the wake of the Katsav plea bargain, persuaded him to offer Ramon the lower-profile job of vice premier instead.
So why did Ramon settle for it in the end? There are two possible reasons. First, he just couldn't imagine a life outside politics; it's been a life-long addiction for him and despite his protestations, he just wasn't ready to change course. Second, there was his personal friendship with Olmert, who did everything possible to persuade him that he was indispensable, successfully in the end.
In his relatively short period in the cabinet, Bar-On has proved both a capable and daring interior minister, at the same time finding abundant time to act as Olmert's main enforcer within Kadima, especially since Ramon's forced absence. When other Kadima ministers preferred to keep quiet, he was always available for interviews, fiercely defending the prime minister and excoriating his opponents.
His loyalty has certainly paid off but the Finance Ministry is a more complex and demanding job, especially in the next few months when the 2008 State Budget will have to be bludgeoned through the cabinet and Knesset. It will be interesting to see how much time he has left now for party politics.
She keeps her job as foreign minister, but Livni is the main loser over the last few weeks of political change. Ehud Barak, as defense minister, has supplanted her as the cabinet's number two and Ramon's as yet undefined political and diplomatic responsibilities will certainly further erode her standing. The cabinet is once again loaded with Olmert loyalists in senior positions and Livni's status as leading challenger to his premiership has been lost. The question is to whom?
Another potential challenger, he was also very disappointed at not being appointed to the Treasury, a ministry he served in twice. His smaller than hoped for promotion to the Interior Ministry might stave off more immediate plans he might have had for launching a palace coup, but it won't have satisfied him for long. His new job will also help him build a wider support base in anticipation of a leadership race, should Olmert be forced to resign.
It will be even more valuable in the period leading up to next year's municipal elections. These will be crucial for Kadima - the party's last chance to prove itself a viable contender in the next general elections, after most observers have already written it off. A good showing will also boost Sheetrit's leadership chances.
He hasn't moved in the reshuffle and neither was he expected to, but his opposition to Ramon's appointment wasn't just a matter of principle for the public security minister. He was indicating that despite previous prevarications, he is still in the rebels' camp.
Dichter is viewed as too inexperienced himself to present his own candidacy for leadership but he will be an eagerly sought-after supporter in any early move by one of the three expected challengers, Livni, Sheetrit and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.
The main surprise in the reshuffle was the promotion of the somewhat lackluster immigrant absorption minister to Sheetrit's vacated post at the influential and budget-heavy Construction and Housing Ministry. Boim might not be seen as major political player but he has one special quality: He is Olmert's oldest friend in politics. The two grew up together as neighbors in the Revisionist stronghold of Nahalat Jabotinsky, next to Binyamina, and he has remained a staunch loyalist.
The long-suffering Edri finally gets a cabinet portfolio; actually he's got two, Immigration Absorption and Development of the Negev and Galilee. Neither of them seemed significant enough on their own. This rather emblemizes Edri's political stature: Not enough of a heavyweight to demand a more senior portfolio, he wanted the housing job, but on the other hand he kept quiet over the last year when others grumbled and for that he was rewarded. The combination of what are deemed lesser posts also shows the lack of importance today's politicians attach to two roles which were once regarded as central Zionist missions.
Whatever the truth of the rumor that Avraham used the services of an image consultant, the new minister has certainly undergone a makeover in the last year. She has not only changed her hairstyle and her previous flamboyant outfits, but has also found herself a more understated and serious tone of voice and been very careful not to be associated with any of the harebrained schemes and outrageous quotes that bedeviled her first Knesset term. In short, Avraham has transformed herself from a parliamentary embarrassment, lampooned on satirical shows, into a political asset, proving herself a competent Knesset House Committee chairman.
She previously managed the offices of Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman and has the two to thank for her political career, but after changing allegiances to Ariel Sharon, she kept loyal also to Olmert and is now reaping the reward. Her elevation to the cabinet is particularly galling to other backbenchers who see themselves as more deserving. These include Majallie Whbee, who stormed out of the Knesset in a huff on Wednesday, and will create more pockets of unrest on the Kadima benches.
The ambitious minister now has to deal not only with the complex Social Affairs portfolio, Diaspora affairs and the fight against anti-Semitism, but also with the Israel Broadcasting Authority headache (Eitan Cabel's old brief). This minor allocation of responsibility is a reminder of the fact that the reshuffle was also supposed to include a shake-up of the Labor ministerial team.
In the end the only Labor change was the previous replacement of Amir Peretz by Barak. The spare spot Labor still holds in reserve at the cabinet table is to remain empty, as a warning to Olmert that it plans to pull out of his coalition at the first opportunity.
This leads, in summary, to the two defining features of Olmert's refurbished cabinet: a strengthened pretorian guard of loyalist ministers, arrayed against the Kadima and Labor rivals just waiting for the right moment to get him.
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