(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert started laying the groundwork for the expansion of his coalition when he asked Kadima MK Marina Solodkin in a recent conversation about the potential addition of Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu party.
Olmert told Solodkin, the senior immigrant MK in his party, that he was considering adding Lieberman and former prime minister Ehud Barak to his cabinet. She advised him to take the former and reject the latter.
"I told Olmert that as far as the Russian immigrant community was concerned, Barak is finished politically and his addition would not be helpful," Solodkin said. "He also asked about adding Lieberman, who is demanding the Defense portfolio. I said it would be wrong to replace someone who doesn't know [Defense Minister Amir Peretz] with someone else who doesn't know, but that if he would offer Lieberman the Interior Ministry, he could not refuse."
A source close to Olmert indicated that he would take Solodkin's advice. He said adding Lieberman was a strong possibility and the likelihood that he would add Barak was "next to zero." The source denied a Channel 2 report that Barak was on his way to the cabinet.
Olmert's associates said he would start devoting his attention to expanding the cabinet after the 2007 state budget passes in the cabinet, as expected, on Tuesday. They said Olmert was considering several options, including adding parties to the cabinet, making a move that would encourage the Labor Party to quit the coalition and maintaining the status quo.
Lieberman's spokeswoman said there had been no contacts with the Prime Minister's Office about joining the coalition and that Lieberman still believed there would be elections in the spring.
Peretz warned Olmert last week that Labor would not accept the addition of Israel Beiteinu to the cabinet. He said Lieberman's addition would create a "trigger-happy right-wing government" that would threaten Israel's neighbors.
The addition of Barak to the cabinet would also be seen as a slap in Peretz's face, even if he is brought in as a minister in charge of strategic affairs or for rebuilding the North, and not as a replacement for Peretz in the Defense Ministry.
"Talk of adding Barak to the cabinet is just another spin campaign of Ehud Olmert," Peretz's spokeswoman Ronit Eckstein said. "Such talk is really unrealistic and really doesn't bother us."
Barak is also seen as anathema by Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister. The rift between Olmert and Mofaz has deepened in recent weeks, culminating in Mofaz's call on Sunday evening for the formation of a state commission of inquiry to investigate the war in Lebanon.
Mofaz's spokesman said his call for the commission was not connected to the reports about Barak or to his political rivalry with Olmert.
Spokesmen for both Olmert and Barak said there had been no contacts between the two about joining the government. But one Barak associate said that if Olmert would make an offer to Barak, he would accept it unconditionally.
"If they ask Ehud, he would immediately report for duty as a soldier to help the country," he said.