Olmert wants UTJ if Lieberman goes

Israel Beiteinu leader to decide party's fate on Tuesday after meeting with prime minister.

Litzman 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Litzman 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert renewed efforts to bring United Torah Judaism into his coalition last week amid threats by Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman to remove his party from the government. Lieberman will meet with Olmert on Monday or Tuesday ahead of a decision Tuesday by the Israel Beiteinu secretariat about whether to leave the government to protest the start of negotiations with the Palestinians on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel Beiteinu's departure looked increasingly likely Sunday after Olmert pressed for the removal of illegal West Bank outposts at a meeting of Kadima ministers. Olmert held a lengthy meeting with UTJ MK Avraham Ravitz in which he tried to persuade him to join the coalition. The meeting was held Tuesday, two days after Lieberman issued his threat to leave and a day before the arrival in Israel of US President George W. Bush. Ravitz said he was surprised that Olmert had made the time to meet with him so close to the Bush visit and after he had tried for weeks to receive such a meeting. The meeting ended with a promise from Olmert to allocate NIS 173 million for haredi educational and cultural institutions and to support Ravitz's proposal to provide tax benefits to organ donors. (In 2000, Ravitz received a kidney from his son Moshe after undergoing dialysis for two years.) Ravitz said the gestures were intended to show goodwill and perhaps to hint at the possibility of future cooperation. "It was a general conversation about why we should be inside the coalition," Ravitz said. "He was very interested in us joining. He knows we don't agree with how things are being run. He knows we care about education and he seemed prepared to fix problems." Olmert assured Ravitz that if concessions in Jerusalem were made to the Palestinians as part of the Annapolis process, they would only be in Arab neighborhoods that were not an integral part of the city. Olmert also hinted that Jerusalem's Old City would not be divided. Ravitz has been friends with Olmert for decades and their families attend each other's celebrations. In the 1980s, Olmert and his wife, Aliza, received weekly private lessons in Judaism from Ravitz at his home in Jerusalem's Bayit Vegan neighborhood. While Ravitz has expressed an interest in joining the coalition on two other occasions since Olmert's government was formed in May 2006, the rest of the members of his faction were not interested. This time, Ravitz believes he could be successful in persuading his colleagues. "If I am convinced that the conditions would allow us to express our opinions the way we want and to live with respect, I think I can bring them all," Ravitz said. UTJ faction chairman Ya'acov Litzman, who in the past ruled out joining the coalition, said Sunday that if he received an offer from Olmert, he would consider it. MK Meir Porush, who is seen as the faction's most hawkish MK, sounded more skeptical. "Our party doesn't want to divide Jerusalem any more than Israel Beiteinu," said Porush, who is considering running for mayor of Jerusalem in November. "I don't think we can deliver the goods in Lieberman's place." Olmert's spokesman said any party that accepted the coalition guidelines was welcome to join and that Ravitz was someone worthy of respect. "I don't understand why UTJ didn't join when the coalition was formed and I don't know why they don't join now," said deputy coalition chairman Yoel Hasson (Kadima), who is one of the MKs closest to Olmert. Shas officials said they would be happy if UTJ joined, which would undoubtedly make it easier for them to remain in the government if Lieberman left. Sources close to Shas head Eli Yishai said he had not changed his mind that the party would only leave the coalition if a deal were reached with the Palestinians on core issues, and that Shas would not bolt over mere negotiations. Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich of Israel Beiteinu, in contrast, said that any negotiations over core issues such as the fate of Jerusalem would cross a red line for his party. Israel Beiteinu officials said they also could not remain in a government that ordered the IDF to evacuate outposts instead of fighting terrorists in the Gaza Strip. "When they start talking about core issues, we will have to be outside, because there is no room for us in such a government," Aharonovich said.