Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tricked Labor chairman Amir Peretz and Shas chairman Eli Yishai into agreeing to forgo deputy ministers in Olmert's coalition, sources close to Peretz and Yishai charged on Monday.
In a meeting between Olmert and Peretz at the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry in Jerusalem, Olmert asked Peretz to give up the seventh portfolio he had offered him four days earlier in response to the public outcry over the size of Olmert's nascent coalition. When Peretz rejected the request, Olmert asked him to instead forgo deputy minister posts, and he reportedly said that Yishai had already agreed to such a request.
After Peretz left the meeting, Olmert called Yishai and told him that Peretz had agreed to forgo the deputy minister posts. Peretz realized that Olmert had tricked him after meeting with Labor MK Ephraim Sneh, who had been slated to be his deputy in the Defense Ministry. Sneh called Yishai, who told him that Olmert had spoken to him moments before.
A top Labor official said that Olmert's trick was "not nice" and that Peretz was angry. But a Peretz associate said he was actually glad that he would not have to deal with the public outcry over the cost of the deputy ministers. A source close to Olmert denied the entire story. The source said no tricks had been played and that Olmert had never mentioned Yishai to Peretz.
No matter whose version of events is true, the likely end result is that the only deputy ministers in Olmert's cabinet will be from United Torah Judaism, which controls portfolios via deputy ministers and not full ministers for ideological reasons. MKs Michael Melchior (Labor), Orit Noked (Labor) and Ronit Tirosh (Kadima), who had hoped to be deputy ministers, were disappointed.
Also Monday, Yishai, Lieberman and the Gil Pensioners Party all called on Olmert to refrain from appointing ministers-without-portfolio and thereby limit the size of the cabinet. Lieberman said that each party should give up one portfolio, while the Gil faction wrote that the ratio of a party's ministers to MKs should be only one for every three.
Olmert and Yishai are to meet again on Tuesday to discuss these developments and try to resolve outstanding differences on issues like raising the minimum wage. According to a preliminary agreement reached with the help of business leaders, the minimum wage will be raised by NIS 500 per month in three stages over a period of nine months.
Gil and United Torah Judaism are ready to join the government as soon as Olmert finalizes the deal with Labor, creating a coalition of 61 MKs. An Olmert associate said a swearing-in ceremony could be held before negotiations with Shas and Israel Beiteinu are completed.
That means that Olmert might have to make a decision by the end of the week on who in Kadima will receive portfolios. Olmert met on Monday morning with Kadima MK Meir Sheetrit and told him he had yet to decide who would be finance minister.
Yishai met on Monday with Olmert adviser Ovad Yehezkel to discuss which portfolios would be given to Shas. They agreed that Yishai would get either the Construction and Housing, Industry and Trade, or Transportation Ministry. Shas is also to be given the Communications Ministry for MK Ariel Attias, MK Yitzhak Cohen is to be a minister-without-portfolio in the Finance Ministry and another Shas MK will be a minister in the Prime Minister's Office in charge of religious affairs.
In other coalition news, Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman backtracked from his demand to receive the Internal Security portfolio Monday, saying that his party could still join Olmert's new government without receiving the post.
Lieberman had been saying for weeks that the portfolio was a prerequisite for his party joining the coalition because he campaigned on a platform of using the post to fight organized crime. But on Sunday, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz ruled that Lieberman could not run the ministry because there was a open police investigation concerning him.
"The question of whether we will be in the government will not depend on one issue," Lieberman told his MKs at the Knesset. "Internal security is important and it was what we ran on, but we have to look at the bigger picture. And we ran on other issues too."
Olmert is now expected to appoint Kadima MK Avi Dichter, former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), as internal security minister. If he gets the post, Dichter would be the first political neophyte to make it to the new cabinet after Knesset newcomers Uriel Reichman (Kadima), Avishay Braverman (Labor) and Ami Ayalon (Labor) lost out in the coalition negotiations.
Kadima is expected to offer Lieberman the Transportation Ministry instead, and may even add control over the coveted Israel Lands Administration.
Lieberman said the crisis between his party and Kadima had been exaggerated in the press. "We are in advanced negotiations with Kadima representatives," he said. "We haven't gotten all the answers yet on matters of diplomacy, absorption and portfolios. There has been some progress, but we are at a critical point. I think that in a couple of days, things will be clearer."
Lieberman denied having criticized Mazuz, despite releasing a statement on Sunday calling his decision a political maneuver.
"I don't have any criticism against the attorney-general," Lieberman insisted. "He has to do his job, and as long as nobody from his office has spoken to me directly, I see myself as a legitimate candidate for the Internal Security portfolio."
Asked if his party would sit in a government that implemented Olmert's convergence plan to withdraw from most of the West Bank, Lieberman said, "There is no convergence plan if it's not in the coalition guidelines."
Guidelines that included convergence, he said, would be "unacceptable" to Israel Beiteinu. In the ongoing talks with Kadima, he said, his party would insist on watering down the clause in the draft guidelines that called for removing West Bank settlements.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Monday that, while he was disappointed with the way his term in the post was ending, he did not plan to quit politics and wanted to take up a new posting in the cabinet.
"It is no secret that I wanted to stay on as defense minister," Mofaz said. "I am, however, prepared to fill any role that allows me to continue to contribute to Israeli society."
After 40 years as an enlisted man, officer, chief of General Staff and defense minister, Mofaz said he knew how to make tough decisions. "I certainly have a connection to the [Defense Ministry] but I will be happy to take up any post that allows me to continue contributing to the State of Israel," he said.
Yaakov Katz and Noga Martin contributed to this report.