Cabinet unanimously approves Olmert’s demand to free Gilead Shalit first

A special cabinet session Wednesday, Feb. 18, unanimously endorsed prime minister Ehud Olmert’s demand that Gilead Shalit’s freedom be a pre-condition for any truce arrangements for Gaza and its crossings. Egypt has been brokering a Gaza truce since Israel’s three-week military campaign ended in the Gaza Strip last month. Until Olmert took the reins out of his hands, defense minister Barak had been leading the Israeli side of the talks without making the release of the Israeli soldier, who was kidnapped on the Israeli side of the Gaza border in 2006, a priority.
Olmert has cut him out of the picture. The prime minister capped Barak’s demotion by phoning Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak Monday, Feb. 16, to inform him where matters stood. He made it clear that the defense minister had erred in leaving Shalit out of the Cairo talks and acted on his own without the prime minister’s authority.
A cabinet member, Raffi Eytan, remarked Tuesday that the negotiations will go back to square one in view of the daily trickle of Palestinian missiles, rockets and mortar fire from Gaza since Israel ended its campaign plus Hamas’ ultimatum demanding that all Gaza crossings be reopened forthwith.
Olmert has also insisted on respecting “the new political reality” generated by the Feb. 10 general election. He has therefore co-opted Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu to key discussions on Gaza – signaling that he is betting on Netanyahu as next prime minister. This was also a painful side-swipe to Barak for the poor electoral showing of his Labor party, the majority of which prefers the opposition benches to a place in government.
Most of all, he made it clear both at home and in Cairo that he is still prime minister and the man in charge.
debkafile‘s political sources expect Ehud Olmert to be around for a while considering the difficulties his successor as Kadima leader, foreign minister Tzipi Livni, and Netanyahu face in putting together a viable coalition government. The formal process began Wednesday when President Shimon Peres began consulting party representatives for the candidate best able to form a government. He must come up with a name by Feb. 26
Just before the full cabinet session Sunday, Olmert told Livni he intended calling for a national unity government (Likud, Kadima and Labor) to succeed his administration. Clearly upset, she asked him to back off and when he pointed to an open microphone, she wrote him a note in the same vein, which TV cameras were allowed to pick up.
Monday, Livni instructed Haim Ramon to inform Lieberman of Israel Beitenu that Kadima was ready to accept almost all his terms, including a platform certain to be vetoed by the religious parties, for joining her government. Her second prospective partner, Labor, came down on Kadima like a ton of bricks, accusing its leaders of cheating the voter who believed he was electing a left-of-center party only to find it in bed with the far right. This strengthened the Laborites intent on going into opposition. Without Labor and the religious parties, Kadima (28 + Israel Beitenu’s 15) is 17 mandates short of a majority government.
Likud spokesmen then made it clear that if Lieberman fails to recommend Netanyahu to the president, he need not expect high posts in his administration.
The Israeli Beitenu leader has not enhanced his eligibility for high office in Jerusalem by a business trip straight after the election to the Belarus capital of Minsk, whose government is notorious for selling arms to Iran, Libya, Syria, Venezuela and Islamist terrorist organizations.
Olmert’s close aides report that the caretaker prime minister is playing cat and mouse with his former and potential rivals because he expects to come out of the corruption scandals hanging over him with a clean enough slate for a comeback in a couple of years.

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