Olmert urges ministers to 'go to work'

"We will be attentive, and pray and believe that we will hear good news from Hadassah."

acting PM olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
acting PM olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opened the first weekly cabinet meeting Sunday in the absence of incapacitated Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a call to the government to do what he said Sharon would want the ministers to do: "get to work." "If I could speak with him this morning and ask, 'Arik, what would you tell us? What would you want us to do?', he would say: 'I appreciate the fact that you are all concerned about my health. Thank you, but get to work,'" Olmert said. Olmert, who was accompanied at the meeting by Sharon's top staff, including senior adviser Dov Weisglass, said that "Israeli democracy is strong and all institutions are functioning in a stable, serious and responsible manner; this is as it should be and this is how it will continue." "Over the last few days we were all, first of all, attentive to what was happening at Hadassah Hospital, praying and wishing for good news," Olmert said. "We were very encouraged to hear the doctors' opinion that the situation had stabilized - and even gotten better - and that there were sparks of hope. From here we also hope and wish that the prime minister recover, get stronger and - with God's help - return to preside over the government of Israel and lead the state." Olmert, who has control of a glut of ministerial portfolios since Sharon's powers were transferred to him, has been urged to distribute the portfolios to new or current ministers in the government. Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz told the cabinet that it was unhealthy for Olmert to hold 11 ministerial portfolios, and that, if it was determined that Sharon was incapacitated and Olmert would become interim prime minister, he would need to disperse the portfolios or appoint new ministers. Olmert was finance minister and industry and trade minister before taking over as acting prime minister last Wednesday night. In addition to receiving Sharon's authority as prime minister, Olmert also inherited Sharon's position as social affairs minister, as well as the eight ministerial portfolios that Sharon had been holding since Labor quit the government in November. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz briefed the cabinet on the security situation in Gaza, and said that because of the growing anarchy there, which he characterized as a "snowball," he has "serious doubts" as to whether the Palestinian Authority legislative elections would be held as planned on January 25. Mofaz paid particular attention to the anarchy at the Rafah border crossing, saying that, in light of the chaotic situation on the Gaza-Egyptian border, Israel was preparing to turn the Erez and Karni crossings on its border with Gaza into "international borders," which would make it much more difficult for both people and merchandise to move from Gaza into Israel. The logic behind this move is that, if there is little supervision of what is coming into Gaza from Egypt, Israel would feel the need to increase its supervision of what then comes from Gaza into Israel. Regarding the northern border, Mofaz said that Hizbullah and "other elements" were interested in escalating the situation along the Lebanese border to distract international attention from Syria, which is causing growing isolation and internal problems. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom gave the cabinet a diplomatic briefing, and said that the Foreign Ministry and its representations abroad have received "thousands" of letters of goodwill for Sharon, including some from Arab countries. Shalom told the ministers he attributed importance to the planned separate visits later this month of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. One Foreign Ministry official said these visits were important now to show that "the wheels of government were still turning," and that the government continued to deal with the "important issues on the table" that needed attention. Turning to the Palestinian elections, Shalom said that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas continued to say that the elections should be held on January 25 as planned, even though - according to Israeli assessments - the anarchy in Gaza was starting to change his mind. If he did indeed want to postpone the voting, Shalom said, he may "hang it" on Israel's position not to let east Jerusalem Arabs vote in the capital. Shalom said that the US administration continues to support the PA elections taking place on time and giving east Jerusalem residents the ability to take part. "For our part," Shalom said, "our message is that east Jerusalem residents would be able to vote, but not in east Jerusalem, rather in areas close to their homes." At the same time, he said, Israel was preparing to help the international election monitors here observe the election, many of whom have already arrived. Olmert spoke Thursday with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and South African President Thabo Mbeki, and continued to take calls over the weekend from world leaders. He spoke on Friday with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and on Saturday with Jordan's King Abdullah II. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack described the conversation with Rice as a "very brief" conversation in which Rice conveyed hopes for Sharon's recovery and said that the thoughts and prayers of the American people were with Israel "in what we know is a difficult time." McCormack said that Rice had spoken with Sharon's top aide, Dov Weisglass, on Wednesday and Thursday. Rice postponed a visit to Australia and Indonesia Saturday because of uncertainty about Sharon's condition, with McCormack saying that "given the physical distances, as well as time differences with potential travel to Indonesia and Australia, she just thought that it was the right decision to be here in Washington right now." Mubarak, according to Olmert's offices, called to convey his wishes for a speedy recovery to Sharon, and also said that the cooperation between Israel and Egypt would continue. Similar sentiments were expressed by Abdullah, who described continued Israeli-Jordanian relations as important. Canadian Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier phoned Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom over the weekend with goodwill messages for Sharon. Steinmeier and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are expected to arrive for separate visits later in the month. Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was scheduled to arrive Saturday for a visit in the region and a meeting with Sharon, has canceled his trip.