Labor ministers regretfully set to pack their bags

Construction and Housing Minister Isaac Herzog will work until "the final hour." His morning Monday will start with a tour of the controversial E1 area between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim. From there he will go straight to his office, where he is expected to resign. "I am working until the last moment," Herzog said. "I am saddened that there are many projects I began that I will not be able to complete." As the Labor Party ministers prepare to withdraw from the government amid party chairman Amir Peretz's drive to topple the government, many find themselves regretfully packing up their posts. "I only hope that whoever succeeds me continues this work," Herzog said. Who that is remains to be seen. Despite the government's fall, in the three months leading up to the general elections the ministries must continue to operate even once the head posts are vacated. Officially, the title is passed over to the prime minister, who can appoint a new minister through a Knesset vote. With the Knesset moving to disband, it appears highly unlikely that Sharon will be able to pass any ministerial appointments. Eight Labor ministers are expected to resign from their posts. In addition to Herzog, they include Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Minister of the Interior Ophir Paz-Pines, Minister of Communications Dalia Itzik, Minister of the Environment Shalom Simhon, Minister of National Infrastructure Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Minister-without-Portfolio Haim Ramon, and newly appointed Minister of Science and Technology Matan Vilnai. Their resignations become active 48 hours after they are submitted, placing them outside of their ministerial posts before Wednesday's expected vote to dissolve the Knesset. Although their withdrawal from the government comes as no surprise, there has been no government response to the imminent vacancies. The current ministers are already overextended, with Ehud Olmert (Likud) retaining control of the Ministry of Trade and Industry in addition to his recently acquired post as Finance Minister, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also holding the title of Welfare Minister. How Sharon will cope with this challenge remains unaddressed, and calls to the Prime Minister's office were not answered by press time. Sharon may choose to allocate the ministries among his already approved ministers. He could also choose to remain at the helm of those ministries but hand real day-to-day operation of them to deputy ministers already in place. The second option appears highly likely in the case of the Interior Ministry, where Ruhama Avraham (Likud) was personally chosen by Sharon as deputy interior minister. Her office said that she was not interested in commenting on her position in the ministry at this time, but added that Avraham maintains a close relationship to Sharon and would have no problem acting as a ministerial head but reporting back to Sharon for the official signature on legislation. In the meantime, Interior Minister Ophir Paz Pines, who managed to fix a date for daylight savings during his tenure, may now be wishing he could turn the clocks back. During his short ten months in office he also enacted legislation granting citizenship to the children of foreign workers and reorganizing local governments. "It is just not enough time," said a spokesman for Paz-Pines. "You start all these things, and before you know it you have left." Paz Pines himself pointed out that when a new minister takes over, he often initiates new projects, investing hundreds of thousands of shekels in research that will lead to legislation. But when the term only lasts ten months, few of those endeavors have matured enough to become self-sufficient, and the slate is often wiped clean by the next minister. "The problem is much more than money," said Paz-Pines's spokesman. "It's not good for any country to have a minister that spends less than one year in office." Paz-Pines has also called a press conference for Monday morning, where he is expected to officially resign from his post. But before he attends his expected resignation party, he will make one last-minute stop - to push forward a reform bill for local governments. It's all part of the last-minute effort to tie up loose ends, he said, and to make sure all his work is not wasted. In the Housing ministry, however, there were no guesses as to who may take over. Instead, Herzog was quick to point out all the accomplishments of his term and reiterate his plea that whoever takes over continue his work. "I enacted dramatic changes to our policy regarding the Negev and Galilee, changes that emphasized the government's interest in expanding those areas," Herzog said. "I also radically changed the government's approach to low-income housing. An issue that was ignored for a long time." And then there was that project, he recalled, housing all the evacuated families from the disengagement. Herzog spent much of his term drafting solutions for temporary and permanent housing.