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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Kadima parliamentarians threw their support behind their party and its leader Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday, even as members of the rival Likud claimed that a number of Kadima lawmakers were ready to join their ranks.
News that the Winograd Committee's preliminary report was likely to take aim at Olmert's decision-making during the Lebanon war has fueled speculation that he would resign and that Kadima - which was created only 16 months ago - would fall apart.
To prove that such speculation was groundless, Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima), who has not had the easiest relationship with Olmert, said he supported the prime minister and urged the nation to do the same.
Sheetrit said it was better to wait until the report was released then to rush to judgment. He said the party would remain intact. He added that he had not left the Likud just to turn around and head back.
Olmert is expected to address the Kadima council in Petah Tikva on Thursday on party matters.
Likud MK Yuval Steinitz told The Jerusalem Post that voters and parliamentarians from Kadima were "looking for a new direction and a new way"
"Many of them are coming to us," he said.
Steinitz said attempts were underway to sway Kadima party members, close to half of whom were originally from the Likud, to return to their former party.
The hope, he said, was to convince at least 10 MKs to rejoin the Likud to help party leader Binyamin Netanyahu garner the support of the 61 MKs needed for him to head the government without a new election.
Steinitz cautioned that talk of attracting Kadima lawmakers to the Likud at this stage was "informal," but added that the scenario represented a real chance for Netanyahu to regain power.
If the Winograd report is published and it is clear that Olmert cannot remain prime minister, there will be only two options, Steinitz said.
Netanyahu can either put forward a coalition of 61 MKs, or there can be new elections, he said.
A spokesman for Netanyahu, however, dismissed reports he was actively campaigning to form a new coalition of 61 MKs. There are informal talks, but no negotiations, he said.
The best option, the spokesman said, was early elections.
It would be different this time, he said, because the Likud is now polling at 30 to 33 mandates. It also has a party base of 125,000 members and is therefore in a much better position then Kadima, which has only 22,000 members, and a seven-mandate showing in the polls.
MK Silvan Shalom (Likud) said that he also preferred new elections, but added that he didn't believe that they were imminent. "Most Knesset members do not want to have early elections," he said, "because the chances that they would get re-elected are very low."
Likud MK Yuli Edelstein said that he, too, preferred new elections. According to Edelstein, the best way for Kadima members who desired to return to the Likud would be through the ballot box.
He said he didn't believe the faction should woo them back or reward them for having left by offering them positions as lawmakers.
On Wednesday, as a sign that the Likud was ready to head to the polls, MK Yisrael Katz proposed a bill to disperse the Knesset.
Kadima members dismissed talk of early elections, as well as rumors that Olmert would resign or that high level party members such as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Sheetrit, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter or Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz would vie to head the party.
Coalition Chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki of Kadima told the Post that he and the party were waiting for the Winograd report. He said he believed that Olmert would remain in office.
"But should he be asked to step down - and we do not believe that will happen - he would be replaced by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is also the Vice Premier."
After that, he said, party procedure dictated that primaries would be scheduled within 60 days. But a party source added that it was not clear that primary would necessarily be held in that case.
It is possible, Yitzhaki said, that in light of the special circumstances and with the interest of party unity in mind, that Livni could be instated as party head with just the support of the faction and the council.