Kadima, UTJ to restart coalition talks

The ongoing talks between Kadima and United Torah Judaism representatives aimed at completing the building of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition will resume on Sunday after a long hiatus, sources in both parties said Thursday. The talks were suspended last month, prior to Olmert's trip to the US. While the two sides agreed on most issues, they were still divided over the size of child welfare benefits for large families and the implementation of the Haredi Education Bill. Both sides had appeared to not be in any hurry to finalize a coalition agreement. But UTJ MK Avraham Ravitz, who is set to control the Welfare Ministry from a deputy ministership according to the deal, intervened against the wishes of his UTJ colleagues and called Olmert adviser Ovad Yehezkel to restart the talks. Yehezkel and cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon talked to UTJ MKs on the phone Thursday, and they are set to meet Sunday. Olmert has held the welfare portfolio since the formation of the government at the beginning of last month. Meanwhile, junior Kadima and Labor ministers have set their sights on the vacant portfolio, just in case the talks with UTJ end unsuccessfully. Science and Culture Minister Ophir Paz-Pines has called for Labor to demand the portfolio instead of his own. Minister-without-Portfolio Ya'acov Edri (Kadima), who successfully ran the development town of Or Akiva, said he had an understanding with Olmert that if UTJ did not join the coalition, the portfolio would be his. Edri said he still hoped UTJ would join. Labor officials said that obtaining the portfolio would help the party reach out to the weakest sectors of the population that supported the party for the first time in the March election. A poll commissioned by Labor strategist Roni Rimon found that support for the party has continued to fall among the general public since the election. In an effort to improve its standing with the public, the Likud faction will convene for marathon deliberations at a vacation retreat next month to hammer out the party's platform on diplomatic, security and socioeconomic issues. The press will be banned from the event to keep it strictly confidential. Likud activists complained on Thursday that there was no reason for the faction to meet at a lavish hotel when the party was having trouble paying the salaries of its workers. Likud Party Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu asked former Likud MK Ehud Yatom on Thursday to become the party's new director-general in place of the retiring Arik Brami. Yatom declined the offer, because the position would prevent him from seeking a slot on the Likud list in the next Knesset.