Kadima, Gil agree on eventual merger

Mazuz rules Eitan can be a minister despite indictment.

Gil pensioners 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Gil pensioners 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Kadima and the Gil Pensioners Party not only became the first faction to sign a coalition agreement on Wednesday, as expected, but they also surprised the political establishment by agreeing to combine their Knesset factions on the way to an eventual merger between them. Representatives of the two parties raised a toast to their plans and signed the agreement after a four-hour meeting at the Kfar Hamaccabiah Hotel in Ramat Gan. Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was not present, called at the meeting's conclusion, expressing his joy the agreement had been signed and that the deal would help pensioners through the challenges they face. Olmert's associates, who worked hard on the deal behind the scenes, said that having 36 MKs in the Kadima faction would make it easier for him to advance his policies, including the West Bank convergence plan. The deal also gives Kadima more leverage in coalition talks with Labor, which had also tried to negotiate a merger with Gil. The agreement promises Gil NIS 650 million for its causes and an additional NIS 750 million that will be added to the 2007 state budget. It gives the party two portfolios: a new ministry for senior citizens' affairs, headed by Gil chairman Rafi Eitan, and the Health Ministry, which will likely be headed by MK Ya'acov Ben-Yizri, No. 2 on Gil's list, pending the approval of the party's council on Thursday. "This is an important accomplishment for a party that only came into being 10 weeks ago," Eitan said. "It is emotional for me to be sitting here with the largest party signing this agreement, which will help not only this generation of pensioners but many generations to come." Eitan said that, as part of a larger faction, he would be able to accomplish much more than in the group of seven Gil MKs who were elected. He said he now had 36 MKs in the joint faction to fight for pensioners' causes. Channel 10 reported on Wednesday night that Eitan was being investigated for building illegally at the Eilat Dolphin Reef that he owns and that he had been indicted two years ago. Eitan said that he did not believe that Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz would decide that the indictment should prevent him from serving as a minister, even though former Shas leader Aryeh Deri had been prevented from serving as a minister after he was indicted. Mazuz later ruled that the basis of the decisions that were used to prohibit Deri from serving in the cabinet and former Shas MK Rafael Pinhasi from heading a Knesset committee did not apply in the case of Eitan because he was not charged with committing a serious crime. "In the cases of Deri and Pinhasi, the court ruled that if an indictment containing serious crimes is submitted against a minister that person will not be able to serve in the post because of concern that it will damage public confidence," wrote Mazuz. He said that, in the case of Eitan, the charges against him concerned the Planning and Building Law and that, "given the circumstances of the indictment, there is no indication that the alleged violations are serious like the ones listed in the indictments against Deri and Pinhasi." Mazuz added that Eitan was not directly involved in the crimes specified in the indictment and was only charged because of his administrative responsibility as head of the company. "Therefore, in these circumstances, there is no cause to prohibit [Eitan's] appointment on the basis of the precedents established in the Deri and Pinhasi cases," Mazuz concluded. Gil MKs are also to be given the chairmanship of the Knesset Social Affairs Committee and a new subcommittee of the Knesset Finance Committee that will deal with the rights of senior citizens. A Gil MK will also serve as a deputy Knesset speaker. Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich had wanted to chair the Social Affairs Committee. She said she would instead compete for the chairmanship of the Education Committee, which along with the Interior Committee is expected to be given to Labor in its coalition agreement with Kadima. A vote is to be held within the Labor faction for the chairmanship of both committees. Many Labor MKs intend to run for the posts. Kadima officials complained Wednesday that internal disputes within Labor were holding up the signing of a coalition agreement. Coalition talks continued on Wednesday night after another draft of the deal was given to Labor in the morning. Labor's constitution committee is expected to meet on Thursday to decide how to select the party's ministers. The party's central committee could meet as early as Friday to vote on the coalition agreement and the candidates for ministers. MKs Matan Vilna'i and Danny Yatom voiced harsh criticism of party chairman Amir Peretz's handling of coalition talks, and accused him of looking after his own interests ahead of those of the party. Other MKs were rumored to be similarly dissatisfied, but were holding their tongues until the final ministerial arrangements were announced. Labor officials said they were considering a number of last-minute arrangements to try and calm party tensions over the ministerial assignments. Peretz might ultimately decide to give up one minister-without-portfolio in exchange for receiving a deputy defense minister, or to have one of Labor's ministers be a second minister in the Defense Ministry. Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman called upon Olmert not to include Labor in the coalition because the party would suck the government dry of money. He said Olmert should instead build a stable government with parties on the Right. Likud faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar said that Israel Beiteinu and Shas should stop "shaming themselves" by negotiating with what he called a leftist government, and should instead join the opposition's efforts to bring down the Kadima-Labor government. Shas chairman Eli Yishai made progress in coalition talks on Wednesday with Olmert adviser Ovad Yehezkel. The talks focused on formulas for raising child welfare allowances for large families. During the meeting, Olmert entered the room and told Yishai that he was wanted in the government as a senior coalition partner. Talks with United Torah Judaism also continued late into the night. If Labor and UTJ join Kadima and Gil in the government, Olmert would already have a 61-MK coalition. Olmert is considering holding a swearing-in ceremony for the ministers of those parties before coalition talks with Shas and Israel Beiteinu are finalized. Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.