Barak says he's readying 'an alternative coalition'

Warns Olmert against committing political suicide after PM threatens to fire Labor ministers.

olmert barak 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
olmert barak 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak escalated their threats against each other to a new peak Sunday when the prime minister threatened to fire Labor ministers and Barak responded that he could form a new Kadima-led government without Olmert. Barak surprised Labor ministers in a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office when he revealed that he was working behind the scenes to form an alternative coalition led by a new prime minister from within Kadima. In such a scenario, Labor ministers would vote in favor of the preliminary reading of Likud MK Silvan Shalom's bill to dissolve the Knesset on Wednesday. Olmert would then exercise the threat he made Sunday to fire them. Olmert would then be left with a minority coalition susceptible to fall in a no-confidence vote the following Monday. But Barak would then block the government from falling until Kadima elected a new leader who could form a new government. "Barak has succeeded in greater missions without getting emotional," a source close to the defense minister said when asked about the riskiness of such a move. "He can't go back now on his promise to vote to disperse the Knesset, because he believes in what he is doing and he cannot go against the public that wants Olmert to go." Olmert decided Saturday night not to accept Labor voting to dissolve the Knesset in the preliminary reading, even though Labor ministers had tried to reassure him that Barak intended to prevent the government from falling in the legislation's final readings. Sources close to Olmert said he decided to apply full force to Labor ahead of Wednesday's vote because it would be difficult for him to govern if the Knesset passed the dispersal bill, even if the preliminary reading was largely symbolic. The sources expressed confidence that enough Labor MKs would defy Barak to prevent the bill from passing. "The prime minister sees it as a matter of principle that you cannot be a minister who votes against the government while still remaining a part of it," an Olmert associate said. "That's unacceptable in any democratic country in the world. The Labor ministers will have to make a choice." Olmert spoke on Sunday with every Labor minister except Barak. When one Labor minister asked him via a note during Sunday's cabinet meeting whether he was "serious about committing political suicide," he responded that he would have no choice but to fire ministers who vote to dissolve the Knesset. The threat was initially issued via Olmert's strategic adviser Tal Zilberstein, whom Olmert sent to speak on Razi Barka'i morning show on Army Radio, which Labor ministers listen to on their way to the weekly cabinet meeting. "There is no room for games," Zilberstein said. "Labor is putting a gun to our heads. There is no greater expression of no-confidence than voting to disperse the Knesset. The Labor ministers will have to explain to their electorate why they are giving the government away to the Right and [Likud leader Binyamin] Netanyahu." Zilberstein's statement had an immediate impact on Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who told her fellow Labor ministers ahead of the cabinet meeting that Kadima should be given until Rosh Hashana to elect a new leader, and that meanwhile Labor should not interfere in Kadima's decision. "If we quit, the issues we believe in will be harmed," Tamir said. "We would go to elections at an inconvenient time and the results won't be what we would hope for." Barak told Tamir that allowing Olmert to stay in power for so long would be unethical. Labor would "give Kadima time, but not too much time," he said. Only five Labor MKs have announced that they intend to vote against dissolving the Knesset: Tamir; Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle; Amir Peretz; Yoram Marciano and Nadia Hilou. Other MKs said that in principle they were against initiating an early election, but they would not defy Barak. Marciano claimed that a majority of the faction had told him that they were against dissolving the Knesset and that if a secret ballot were held, Barak would lose. But faction chairman Eitan Cabel said Wednesday's vote would not be by secret ballot. Shas's 12 MKs intend to vote in favor of dispersing the Knesset unless child welfare allowances are raised by Wednesday's vote. Olmert's associates expressed confidence that a deal could be reached with Shas by then. Olmert will host Kadima activists at his official residence in Jerusalem on Monday in a political rally intended to send a message that despite Wednesday's vote, he does not intend to move any time soon.