Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not intend to fill the vacancies in his cabinet or reshuffle portfolios until after he returns from his visit to the United States on June 20, sources close to him said Wednesday. Newly elected Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak is anxious to return to the Defense Ministry as soon as possible to start working to stop the rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. Business leaders emphasized the urgency of filling the vacancy in the Finance Ministry left by the resignation of Avraham Hirchson last month.
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But Olmert's associates said he was concentrating on preparing for his US trip and the appointments would have to wait. Olmert may decide, however, to leave his cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon or his deputy chief of staff Ovad Yehezkel in Israel to handle negotiations with Barak.
"No timetable has been set for appointing the ministers," an Olmert associates said. "There will probably be one meeting between Olmert and Barak, but there won't be anything constructive politically before he leaves."
Barak will almost definitely be defense minister, unless Olmert decides to promote Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and offer Barak the Finance portfolio instead. The leading candidates for finance minister are MK Haim Ramon, Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit and Interior Minister Roni Bar-On.
The election of Shimon Peres as president on Wednesday opened up several vacancies for Olmert to fill: vice premier, minister of Negev and Galilee development and a slot in the security cabinet.
One scenario discussed in Olmert's circle is to promote Minister-without-Portfolio Ya'acov Edri to Negev and Galilee development minister, replace Edri with Knesset House Committee chair Ruhama Avraham, replace Avraham with interim coalition chairman Yoel Hasson and replace Hasson with MK David Tal.
But Barak is expected to demand the Negev and Galilee Development portfolio for current defense minister Amir Peretz. He also needs to find a job for his defeated rival, MK Ami Ayalon.
Barak's associates said they hoped Ayalon would decide to keep his promise not to join an Olmert-led government, because he does not have enough ministries to allow Barak, Peretz and Ayalon to serve in the cabinet.
Barak received a phone call from Olmert congratulating him, but they are not set to meet on Thursday and a meeting between the two had not been set up by press time. Barak will hold closed-door meetings on Thursday with the MKs who supported him in the race and then separately with Peretz and Ayalon.
"I wish [Barak] success in his new job and in accomplishing the goals he set for himself in his campaign," Olmert told the Kadima faction.
Barak also received congratulatory calls from Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, Peretz and Ayalon. Netanyahu said he hoped Barak would keep his campaign promise to bring about early elections.
Peretz promised to cooperate with Barak and treat him better than he was treated when he took over the Labor leadership. Ayalon told Barak that he would not appeal the results of the race, but that he would ask the police, the state comptroller and everyone necessary to investigate alleged incidents of forgeries and ballot-stuffing.
Ayalon, who lost to Barak 51.2% to 48.8%, told his associates on Wednesday that he believed he would have won the race if it were not for irregularities in the Arab and Druse sectors. Just like after the first round of voting two weeks ago, Ayalon told confidants that he "won the race among the Jews."