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The mystery man who brought together Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Labor chairman Amir Peretz for the secret talks that jump-started the building of Olmert's government will continue working behind the scenes throughout the coalition negotiations, sources close to Olmert revealed on Wednesday.
Olmert's associates said the identity of the man who initiated the meeting between Olmert and Peretz at his Tel Aviv home on Sunday night would remain a secret until after the government was formed. They said he would be brought in whenever a crisis loomed in talks between Kadima and Labor and perhaps be sent to other parties as well.
The official coalition negotiations will begin on Sunday after President Moshe Katsav formally asks Olmert to form the government on Thursday afternoon at Beit Hanassi. But secret contacts have already been held with every possible coalition partner, including talks that made progress with Israel Beiteinu on Wednesday.
Olmert has a history of employing secret talks in coalition negotiations. In February 2003, while official teams of negotiators from several parties were meeting daily at Ramat Gan's Kfar Hamaccabiah Hotel, Olmert secretly built Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government via negotiations at his Jerusalem home in which he mediated between Shinui head Yosef Lapid and National Religious Party chairman Zevulun Orlev.
With five parties representing 84 MKs set to enter the coalition, Kadima officials intend to enforce a rule whereby parties would be given a portfolio for every 3.5 MKs. That would result in a government with 24 ministers: 10 from Kadima, six Labor, three Shas, three Israel Beiteinu and two from the Gil Pensioners Party. United Torah Judaism will control one ministry via a deputy minister and the Knesset Finance Committee.
The 10 Kadima ministers are expected to be Shimon Peres, Tzipi Livni, Meir Sheetrit, Avi Dichter, Marina Solodkin, Haim Ramon, Shaul Mofaz, Avraham Hirchson, Gideon Ezra and Roni Bar-On. Olmert wants Ze'ev Boim to be Knesset Speaker, Tzahi Hanegbi to head the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and Dalia Itzik will either be a deputy minister or the head of one of the Knesset's most important committees.
Ministers in line for plumb portfolios include Haim Ramon in the Justice Ministry and Roni Bar-On in the Interior Ministry. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz will have to settle for a junior portfolio and Uriel Reichman is expected to return to the presidency of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center after the Education portfolio he entered politics to receive will be given to Labor's Yuli Tamir.
Olmert told the Kadima faction at the Knesset on Wednesday that he wanted to build a wide coalition so the government would not be able to be paralyzed by threats from parties on the Right or Left to leave the coalition. Olmert's associates said he meant that by adding Israel Beiteinu to the coalition, he was ensuring that Labor's departure would not topple his government.
"I believe that the government will be established in a short period of time and will be stable enough to last [the entire term of] four and a half years, so we can have enough time and stability to accomplish our goals," Olmert said.
"I will make a major effort to complete the process of building as wide a government as possible as soon as possible." The coalition negotiating teams of Kadima and Labor will meet separately on Thursday morning to plan strategies for the negotiations. Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, will convene his faction at the Knesset on Thursday to formally reject Olmert's offer to negotiate entering the government.
Mofaz called Peretz on Wednesday to personally refute a front-page story in Wednesday's Yediot Aharonot newspaper in which Mofaz's associates warned that the appointment of Peretz as defense minister would be irresponsible and could endanger the country. Mofaz told Peretz that he believed the Labor leader was eminently suited for any position offered to him.