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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The long-awaited cabinet reshuffle that had been expected to take place following the conviction of former justice minister Haim Ramon did not happen on Wednesday and may take weeks, because Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has not yet decided what to do.
Olmert has said in private conversations that he wants to take the opportunity to remove Labor party chairman Amir Peretz from the Defense Ministry and instead offer him the Interior and Social Affairs portfolios. His advisers are divided about whether to make the move and the general consensus in his office was that he ultimately would not.
Sources close to Olmert said the main argument for not removing Peretz is that Peretz is expected to lose the May 28 Labor primary, and Olmert wants Labor to retain the Defense portfolio for Peretz's successor, presumably the front-runners in the race - former prime minister Ehud Barak and MK Ami Ayalon.
But other advisers believe Olmert must fire Peretz in order to salvage his own political career in the face of Kadima's tailspin in the polls.
"Olmert has no choice," Kadima strategist Lior Chorev said. "For the public, he must give the Defense portfolio to a man with security experience, even if he chooses to keep the portfolio in Labor."
Peretz's spokesman said there was no chance that he would leave the Defense Ministry, especially if the Winograd Commission investigating the summer's war in Lebanon cleared him.
Peretz's associates said he hopes to remain defense minister even after the primary, now that the Labor membership drive gave him new hope of winning the race.
Olmert will begin consultations with his coalition partners on Friday after taking Thursday off to testify before the Winograd Commission. Labor, Israel Beiteinu and Minister-without-Portfolio Ya'akov Edri of Kadima have all demanded the Social Affairs portfolio.
Edri, who was Or Akiva mayor for 16 years, is also seen as a candidate for the Interior portfolio if Olmert decided to promote Interior Minister Roni Bar-On to replace Ramon in the Justice Ministry. Olmert will have to decide between promoting Bar-On, the cabinet minister to whom he is closest, and Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit, who is a potential rival.
Chorev said he did not think Ramon's conviction would harm Kadima, but other Kadima officials said that Olmert was reeling from the loss of Ramon and the investigations of his bureau chief Shula Zaken and his close ally, Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson.
One Kadima MK even called Ramon's conviction "the final nail in the party's coffin."
Olmert called Ramon to wish him well and issued a statement in which he expressed his "deep regret" for Ramon's conviction. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that while she was personally sorry to hear that Ramon had been convicted, the ruling should be respected and the public should accept the court's decision.
MKs in Likud and Kadima said the legal establishment did to Ramon what they tried to do to former ministers Yaakov Neeman, Reuven Rivlin and Avigdor Lieberman, who were all brought down by fruitless investigations that sprouted when it appeared they would be given legal portfolios.
"If he wasn't a reformist justice minister, it could be that he would have just gotten a slap on the wrist," a Likud MK said.
National Union-National Religious Party MK Zvi Hendel lashed out at what he called "the hypocrisy of the Left that saw the justice system as the holy of holies until it dared harm one of their own and all of a sudden became the enemy of the nation."
Hendel's NU-NRP colleague Arye Eldad appealed to the Knesset House Committee to begin the process of removing Ramon from the Knesset, saying that if the Knesset started removing a president who hadn't even been indicted, the Knesset must remove Ramon after he was convicted. Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter also called upon Ramon to quit the Knesset.
Retired general Professor Gideon Ben-Yisrael, a former head of the Israel Space Agency who is next on the Kadima list, would take over for Ramon in the Knesset if he resigned.