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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Annapolis peace process might not have made Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas partners to a peace agreement, but it could make Meretz a partner in Olmert's coalition.
Olmert on Wednesday will meet with the Meretz faction for the first time since his government was formed last year. Olmert's associates said he did not want to be seen as interfering in the Meretz leadership race, but they said Olmert was close to front-running candidate Haim Oron, and that if Oron won the race, the prime minister would like Meretz to join the coalition.
Oron said that Meretz could not join a coalition with Israel Beiteinu, but that if the Annapolis process advanced and Avigdor Lieberman's party consequently left the government, Meretz would consider Olmert's overtures.
"We don't sit in the opposition as a matter of principle," Oron said borrowing a quote popularized by Lieberman. "If the diplomatic process advances, we will consider [joining] based on the developments at the time."
Sources close to current Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin revealed that during coalition talks ahead of the formation of Olmert's government, Beilin wanted to join, but he decided not to because Olmert refused to give him a guarantee that Lieberman wouldn't join the government as well.
"As long as Lieberman is there [in the cabinet], it is clear the government is not moving toward peace," a source close to Beilin said. "If he is not there, it's not automatic that we would join, but it's a hypothetical possibility."
Beilin praised Olmert and his government over the weekend in an interview with Yediot Aharonot, while bashing Labor chairman Ehud Barak.
"I believe that Olmert underwent an immense ideological change over the last few years," Beilin said. "Olmert is proper and fitting to be prime minister. He is a good prime minister. He is closer to my views than Ehud Barak."
Beilin said Barak no longer believed that anyone could bring peace, because he failed at it when he was prime minister.
"He is hindering the peace process," Beilin said. "The head of the peace camp has to be someone who can't sleep at night until he has sought every opportunity to advance a diplomatic solution. That's really not Barak."
Israel Beiteinu spokespeople declined to comment about Meretz's desire to replace it in the coalition.
A spokesman for Shas, which sat together with Meretz in two governments, said the party was prepared to sit with anyone who would sign the coalition guidelines and act according to them.
Deputy coalition chairman Yoel Hasson of Kadima said he hoped Lieberman would remain in the government. He said Meretz joining the coalition would be bad for Kadima because it would harm the party's efforts to balance itself in the center of the political map.
MK Ze'ev Elkin, who is one of Kadima's most right-wing MKs, said he hoped his party would not enact policies that could force out Israel Beiteinu and Shas and bring in Meretz.
"[Meretz's joining] would cause problems within Kadima among MKs who see themselves as no less a part of the center-right than Lieberman and [Shas chairman] Eli Yishai," Elkin said. "Things that Lieberman and Yishai cannot live with are also intolerable for Kadima MKs. I don't think a government made up of Kadima, Labor, Meretz and the Pensioners Party would last."
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