Barak to get Defense portfolio Monday

Ministers approve appointment by phone; Barak still says PM should resign.

barak wins 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
barak wins 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
In light of the situation in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and new Labor chairman Ehud Barak decided in a meeting Friday that Barak should take over the Defense portfolio as soon as possible. Israel Radio reported that in an expedited process, cabinet ministers were contacted by phone and asked to approve Barak's appointment as defense minister. The appointment passed, and is expected to be approved by the Knesset on Monday. According to the report, Barak also told Olmert that he has no intention of reneging on his demands that Olmert resign until the Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War releases its final report. Barak associate Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon told Army Radio that immediately upon Olmert's return from his planned trip to Washington next week, "changes would have to be made in the Defense Ministry." "It can't take more than two or three days," Simhon said. "Remember, according to the coalition agreement, the Labor Party chairman is also defense minister." Defense Minister Amir Peretz announced Friday that he would step down as soon as the Knesset approved Barak's appointment. "Defense Minster Amir Peretz will resign immediately after the Knesset vote on Monday," his office said in a statement. "Until then, he will fulfill his duty as usual." On Thursday, the Prime Minister's Office released a statement saying that Olmert had invited Barak to discuss diplomatic and security issues, and not politics. Olmert had a difficult decision to make about whether to risk appointing Barak defense minister in light of statements Barak made to associates and supporters since Tuesday's Labor primary. He vowed to use the Defense Ministry to improve his image with the public and return to the Prime Minister's Office. "The elections will be in the summer of 2008," a Barak associate said. "If people changed their minds about Bibi [Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu] within three months, the public will realize within the same amount of time that their impression of Barak was wrong and that Israel needs him as prime minister." Kadima ministers Shaul Mofaz, Meir Sheetrit and Haim Ramon had all warned Olmert against appointing Barak, as had Barak's opponents in Labor. Kadima officials had advised Olmert to give Barak the Finance portfolio insead, as he has a degree in engineering economic systems from Stanford University. "Making Barak defense minister will destroy Kadima," a source close to Mofaz said. "He wants to improve his image, break up Kadima and go to elections whenever he thinks it's convenient for him." Barak's associates said Olmert's alternative of appointing Mofaz defense minister would be an even greater threat to his political future. Sources close to Olmert said the prime minister "would not negotiate a date for an early election." Cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon denied reports that Olmert was considering seeking a national-unity government with the Likud, saying that Kadima, Labor and Israel Beiteinu already constituted a kind of national-unity government. A senior Shas official warned Olmert that if Labor was given another portfolio to allow Barak to add both himself and MK Ami Ayalon to the cabinet, Shas would also demand another ministry. Barak met accordingly with Ayalon and Peretz at Labor headquarters in Tel Aviv's Hatikva Quarter on Thursday and statements were released after both meetings saying that they discussed cooperation and uniting the party. But according to one report, Barak told Peretz that his place in the cabinet was not safe and demanded that he break up the "socioeconomic camp" in the party that he launched at a rally two weeks ago. It was the first meeting between Barak and Peretz in two years. Some Peretz associates advised him to leave the cabinet to rehabilitate his image as an MK. Ayalon has received similar advice. Sources close to him said he would not join the cabinet unless he was given a senior portfolio. Ayalon sees himself as a future candidate for prime minister. On a campaign stop Tuesday, Ayalon was asked by a crew from CNN what a victory for him would mean for Israel's future. Ayalon responded by saying on camera, in English: "It is too complicated for the people who are not living here."