Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's advisers are divided over whom he should name finance minister, Kadima officials said Thursday. Olmert has been under pressure from business leaders to name a finance minister as soon as possible to replace MK Avraham Hirchson, who resigned on April 22 to fight embezzlement allegations against him. Olmert intends to decide whom to appoint by Wednesday and bring the appointment for cabinet and Knesset approval the following Sunday and Monday.
Analysis: Olmert will likely pick a loyalist
Cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon is said to be in favor of promoting Interior Minister Roni Bar-On. But Yoram Turbowitz, Olmert's chief-of-staff, apparently opposes the appointment and prefers bringing in a professional finance minister who is not a politician, such as Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer.
Other officials close to Olmert believe he should appoint MK Haim Ramon, fulfilling a promise he made to Ramon that he would return to a higher cabinet position than the Justice Ministry, which he was forced to leave due to the sexual harassment charges for which he was later convicted.
The proponents of Bar-On have told Olmert that appointing Ramon would be too much of a risk, because women's groups have announced they would appeal to the High Court of Justice to prevent Ramon's return to the cabinet. They said losing such a lawsuit would squander the momentum Olmert gained from his success in electing Shimon Peres as president.
Channel 2's Amnon Abramovich reported Thursday that Olmert was told by Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's office that a Ramon appointment would be hard to justify to the High Court. The report said Ramon turned down an offer from Olmert to be a minister-without-portfolio in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians, because he was concerned that Defense Minister Ehud Barak would block his access.
Bar-On's supporters told the prime minister that he had proven himself to be Olmert's closest confidant in the cabinet and to be willing to fight on his behalf. They said having a strong finance minister whose hands were not tied by potential lawsuits was especially important now due to the likelihood that the 2008 state budget would be the last one the government would be able to pass before the next election.
Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit, who is considered the least likely candidate to receive the post, is also the most popular in the general public, according to a Ma'agar Muhot poll broadcast Thursday on Israel Radio.
The poll found that 20 percent of Israelis preferred Sheetrit, 17% wanted Ramon to receive the post and 6% backed Bar-On. The rest - some 57% - had no preference or answered none of the above.
A Gal Hadash poll broadcast on Channel 10 found that 14% of Israelis approved of Olmert's performance as prime minister while 70% disapproved. Barak's appointment as defense minister was supported 53%-34%.
Barak's associates have advised him to spar publicly with Olmert as often as possible to separate himself from the prime minister and prevent Olmert's unpopularity from sticking to him. Barak and Olmert already began sparring this week over whether the coalition agreements should be reopened to give Labor an additional portfolio that Barak could use to placate his rivals, MKs Amir Peretz and Ami Ayalon.
Olmert told Shas chairman Eli Yishai in a meeting in Tel Aviv on Thursday that no changes would be made in the coalition without Shas's approval.
Olmert also held a three-way meeting Thursday with Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. His associates said only diplomatic and security issues were discussed at the meeting.
Barak met with Labor ministers earlier Thursday. Labor faction chair Yoram Marciano, a Peretz loyalist, expressed outrage that Barak did not invite him to the meeting. Marciano said he had always been invited to ministerial meetings until Barak took over the Labor leadership.
He accused Barak of trying to assassinate him politically.
Marciano was also upset that Barak invited Peretz's nemesis, Histradrut chairman Ofer Eini.
Sources close to Barak responded that Marciano had never attended Labor's ministerial meetings before because they were held on early Sunday mornings in Jerusalem ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting.