Olmert: 'Elections became referendum'

'I will make every effort to conclude negotiations as soon as possible.'

The election vote was in fact a national referendum on the diplomatic issues that face Israel today, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday during a meeting of the Kadima Knesset faction. "Fortunately, the election campaign became, with the consent of all parties, a referendum," Olmert said. The Kadima leader estimated that coalition talks wound end by the end of April or the beginning of May. "I will make every effort to conclude coalition negotiations as soon as possible," he said. According to Olmert, "We have been operating in the past six months without a government that enjoys a stable parliamentary majority. The 2006 budget has yet to be approved. This is neither a good nor a healthy situation." Hours earlier President Moshe Katsav announced that he would task Olmert with forming the next government. Katsav said he hoped the incoming Knesset would garner more of the public's admiration than its predecessor. Also Wednesday, Central Election Committee Chairperson Justice Dorit Beinish provided Katsav with the official election results, which showed no changes in the current mandate tally.
On Tuesday, after Labor Chairman Amir Peretz phoned the president to express his support for Olmert as the next prime minister, Katsav revealed that there were no parties opposed to Olmert forming the next government. Shas Chairman Eli Yishai also announced that his party backed the acting prime minister, but insisted that a socio-economic platform would be the basis for any negotiations that they hold with Olmert, Army Radio reported. The chairmen of two of the Arab parties Hadash and Balad completely rejected Olmert's policies, but did not present Katsav with an alternative candidate for prime minister. Coalition talks were underway between Kadima and Labor to enable the latter to join the government as the second-largest party. After refusing his request for the Finance Ministry, it appeared likely that Peretz would be appointed defense minister. Olmert was also expected to invite the right-wing Israel Beiteinu to join the coalition, much to the dismay of Labor MKs. A senior Kadima official told Israel Radio that the nascent government would include no more than 23 ministers, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defined when he formed the party. The distribution of portfolios among the parties would be determined by the number of parties in the coalition.