Despite Labor's objections, Interior Minister Roni Bar-On was appointed on Sunday as a member of the Judges Selection Committee. Sources in the Labor Party said that the dispute wouldn't lead to a crisis within the coalition but that it had definitely exacerbated the deep tensions already existing in Labor and led to a flurry of rumors over the motivation behind Bar-On's appointment.
The coalition agreement between Kadima and Labor included a seat for Labor on the powerful panel, which will have even greater influence than usual in the coming months as five new Supreme Court justices have to be chosen and the question of Court President Aharon Barak's successor will need to be decided. There are nine members on the committee: three judges, two ministers, two Knesset members (one of the opposition) and two representatives of the Bar Association. The committee is co-chaired by the justice minister and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
At the end of last week, Labor Chairman Amir Peretz demanded that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert remove the appointment of Bar-On as the second minister on the committee from Sunday's cabinet agenda. Labor claimed that since its chosen representative to the committee was Culture, Science, and Sport Minister Ophir Paz-Pines, he should be the second minister, and not Bar-On. Olmert and Justice Minister Haim Ramon were adamant that Bar-On be appointed, giving Kadima two senior representatives on the committee, and insisted that Labor nominate an MK to the committee.
Kadima insisted that the coalition agreement didn't stipulate whether Labor's representative had to be a minister or an MK, while Labor argued that Kadima couldn't decide for Labor who their representative should be. On Sunday morning, Labor ministers met before the cabinet meeting and decided to vote against Bar-On's appointment, which still garnered a large majority among the ministers.
Sources in Labor said after the vote in the cabinet that they didn't blame Olmert or Ramon, since the coalition agreement was indeed unclear on that point. But they did blame Peretz, who had promised Paz-Pines the position as a compensation for his receiving only a junior cabinet post, and had proved powerless to keep his promises.
Peretz wasn't even capable of ensuring Labor unity during the vote, when two of the party's ministers, Shalom Simhon and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer abstained, instead of voting against Bar-On's appointment, further angering Paz-Pines, the sources said.
The minister had served as go-between over the last few days, and had achieved a compromise between Peretz and the "rebel quintet" of Labor MKs opposed to his leadership. Sunday's disappointment may push Paz-Pines towards the rebel camp.
Labor sources said after the vote that "Ramon wants Bar-On on the committee as part of the grand plan that he hatched with their mutual friend Aryeh Deri and they were worried that Paz-Pines would ruin their plan." Ten years ago, Deri, then chairman of Shas, was indicted for illegally engineering the appointment of Bar-On, then a lawyer in the private sector, as attorney general. According to the Labor sources, Deri and his friends haven't given up on their dream of drastically changing the judiciary.
Ramon's spokesman refused to comment on the allegations but sources close to him insisted that it was Kadima's prerogative to have two ministers on the committee and that it was Olmert who had decided on the identity of the second member. "Paz-Pines is just using these accusations to camouflage his over-ambition that hasn't been satisfied" they said.