Ramon U-Turns, Returns to Cabinet

PM Olmert succeeded in persuading forced-kiss convict Chaim Ramon to be named Deputy Prime Minister. Roni Bar-On will become Finance Minister.

Hillel Fendel ,

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with ministerial candidates Wednesday morning, finalizing the composition of his Cabinet for the coming weeks and months - and perhaps even until the next regularly-scheduled elections three years from now.

The main focus of interest, former Justice Minister Chaim Ramon, will return to the Cabinet and will be named Deputy Prime Minister, with expanded diplomatic and security responsibilities. 

Ramon had implied since last night that he would remain outside the circle of appointments and might even quit politics altogether, at least temporarily.  This, following Olmert's refusal to name him Finance Minister, because of his recent conviction of forcibly kissing a young soldier the day the Second Lebanon War started.  Ramon was sentenced to 120 hours of community service, but the court ruled that his crime did not entail "moral turpitude" - enabling him to return later to a Cabinet post. Prior to that, he had served as Olmert's Justice Minister for several months in 2006.

Ramon was very anxious to be named Finance Minister during the current round of Cabinet appointments.  He even accused Interior Minister Roni Bar-On of acting like a "dog" and "trampling on my head" to keep him from getting the job. 

However, Prime Minister Olmert apparently felt that the public criticism in the wake of naming his close friend Ramon as Finance Minister would be insurmountably overwhelming. The Emunah women's religious organization and others have already petitioned the Supreme Court against any ministerial appointment for Ramon.

Emunah Chairperson Liora Minke explained succinctly: "Little by little, the face of our country is becoming one of sexual harassers. We can no longer ignore the public significance of the ethical deterioration and the continuing erosion in the image and leadership of the State."

Expecting somewhat less criticism if he offered Ramon a different ministerial post, the Prime Minister did just that.  Olmert spent many hours with Ramon Tuesday, trying to convince him to accept the position of Deputy Prime Minister in place of Shimon Peres, with expanded diplomatic and security authorities.  It appeared that he had failed, however - until early this afternoon, when Ramon suddenly accepted.  He turned down the Negev and Galilee Development portfolio, however.

Roni Bar-On will receive the nod for Finance Minister, edging out Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit, who will replace him Bar-On the Interior Ministry.  Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim will then succeed Sheetrit as Housing Minister. Minister without Portfolio Yaakov Edry is also expected to be promoted, but he has turned down the Absorption Ministry and will likely take the Negev and Galilee portfolio instead.  MK Ruchama Avraham, a former secretary to Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, will become a Minister without Portfolio.  The new ministers are likely to be sworn in today (Wednesday).

What's the Purpose?
MK Michael Eitan (Likud), speaking in the Knesset about the appointments, said, "All the new ministers are happy with their new jobs - but is the country happy?  After all, each new minister will need a few months to get used to his new position, and meanwhile, disorganization will reign in each ministry. So what do we gain from all this? And for how long will these new ministers serve anyway? After all, Labor says it plans to topple the government within a few months. So what is the purpose of this re-shuffling?"

In the Likud
In other political news, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu met Wednesday with his internal opposition leader MK Silvan Shalom in an attempt to come up with an agreed-upon date for Likud primaries.  No date was finalized, but Shalom said afterwards that shortly after the High Holidays would be appropriate.  Netanyahu would have preferred an earlier date, but realizes that the summer vacation is not suitable.

These and other political machinations are taking place in the shadow of the upcoming publication of the final findings of the Winograd Commission investigating the government's handling of the Second Lebanon War.  Olmert is expected to face tremendous pressure to resign at that time. Ehud Barak, head of the government coalition's second largest party, has already said he expects Olmert to resign following the publication of the Winograd report.