Centrist Labor joins new Israeli government
Mark Lavie, Associated Press Writer – 21 mins ago
JERUSALEM – Israel's Labor Party voted Tuesday to join the incoming government of Benjamin Netanyahu, lending a moderate voice to a coalition dominated by hard liners and easing concerns of a head-on confrontation with Washington over Mideast peacemaking.
Chants of "Disgrace! Disgrace!" echoed through the convention hall after Defense Minister Ehud Barak pushed through the proposal despite angry opposition from party activists who feared Labor would give only a superficial gloss to a government little interested in moving toward peace.
Labor's move gives Netanyahu's coalition a majority of 66 in the 120-seat parliament.
Labor's decision, by a 680-507 vote, paves the way for a broader government than the narrow and hawkish one Netanyahu would otherwise have had to settle for, increasing his chances of gaining international acceptance.
Barak was set to remain defense minister, a key position in the new Cabinet, that could allow Labor to promote peace efforts with the Palestinians.
On the other hand, the expected appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister could overshadow Barak's input. Lieberman is widely perceived as a racist because of his demands that Israel's minority Arabs take a loyalty oath or forfeit their citizenship.
On Tuesday, Jewish extremists marched through the northern Israeli-Arab town of Umm el-Fahm, demanding residents show loyalty to Israel and setting off stone-throwing protests by Arab youths that police dispersed with stun grenades and tear gas. No serious injuries were reported, but residents denounced the march on one of Israel's largest Arab communities.
In Israel, the prime minister sets the tone for his government, and Netanyahu remains deeply skeptical about negotiations with the Palestinians. The past year of U.S.-backed talks have produced no discernible results, because the leadership of both sides appeared too weak to make the necessary concessions on vital issues like borders, refugees and settlements.
Netanyahu claims the Palestinians are not ready for statehood and suggests economic development instead. The Palestinians reject that and have received the backing of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She emphasized several times during a visit here this month that the Obama administration's goal is creation of a Palestinian state that would live in peace next to Israel.
Tuesday's contentious vote drove a wedge through Barak's Labor party, opening the way for a possible split — if not now, then in the future. At least six of Labor's 13 legislators were strongly opposed to joining Netanyahu's team, and some may decide to leave the party and remain in the opposition. That could force Netanyahu to bring in at least one more hard-line party to cement his majority.
Former Labor Party leader Amir Peretz stopped just short of declaring a split. "It will be hard for us to work together, and I assume the government and Benjamin Netanyahu aren't deluding themselves that they're going to get our support," he said.
Another option to bolster Netanyahu's majority was that with Labor aboard, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni might lead her Kadima Party into the new government, though she has resisted overtures up to now. Kadima won 28 seats in the Feb. 10 election, one more than Netanyahu's Likud.
A broader coalition would bring stability to the government because it would not be held hostage to the demands of smaller partners. It also would enjoy more international credibility with some members committed to peace talks.
Under the proposed coalition deal with Labor, Israel would draft a comprehensive plan for Mideast peace, resume peace talks and commit itself to existing peace accords, Labor officials said.
Netanyahu has already signed coalition agreements with Yisrael Beitenu and Shas, two parties known for their tough policy lines toward the Palestinians, as is Netanyahu's own Likud Party. Labor, in contrast, has been at the forefront of Mideast peace efforts.
Barak faced strident heckling during his speech before the vote and was conspicuously absent from the hall when the results were announced. His case was that Labor must play a role in determining Israel's future.
"I won't be anyone's fig leaf or anyone's third wheel," Barak told the crowd ahead of the vote. "We will be the counterweight that will guarantee that we won't have a narrow right-wing government, but a real government that will take care of the state of Israel."
Labor, which dominated Israeli politics for three decades from the 1948 founding of the state, has been in an electoral tailspin for the past decade. The 13 seats Labor won in last month's election are by far its worst showing ever, dropping from 19 in the previous parliament, which itself was the party's weakest result until then.
Netanyahu has until April 3 to form his coalition. He hopes to take office next week, replacing Kadima's Ehud Olmert, who announced in September that he would resign to battle a series of corruption allegations.
Some analysts saw Barak's charge into Netanyahu's government as a cynical ploy to retain personal power.
In the Yediot Ahronot daily, columnist Sima Kadmon wrote, "This decision has nothing to do with the good of the nation. In the best case, it has to do with the good of the (Labor) Party. In the worst case, it has to do with the good of a few of its members."