JERUSALEM — Israel's Labor party agreed on Tuesday to join the coalition led by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, assuring the presence of at least one moderate in its top ranks: former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
The accord, approved at a stormy session of the Labor Party Central Committee, will allow Netanyahu, also a former prime minister, to form a government. Some in the Labor Party, however, fear that they'll be used as a fig leaf for a right-wing government.
President Shimon Peres had asked Tzipi Livni, the leader of the centrist Kadima party, to form a government last year, but the effort fell short. Netanyahu's conservative Likud party finished a close second in national elections on Feb. 10 to the centrist Kadima party, and Peres turned to Netanyahu.
Netanyahu could've set up a hardline regime, but instead sought to establish a more broad-based coalition. When he failed to woo Livni, he began building a government based on a coalition with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, led by Avigdor Lieberman, and the religious Shas party.
Lieberman, who's now set to become foreign minister, has demanded that citizens take a loyalty oath to the state of Israel or lose their right to vote and run for office. His rise to power has been greeted with deep concern by Palestinians. While his party doesn't oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, it wants to annex parts of the West Bank that contain Jewish settlements and favors active efforts to bring down the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.
Even after reaching the accord, Netanyahu continued his efforts to persuade the center-left Labor party join his government, even offering Barak the chance to remain at the prestigious post of defense minster, a post he'd held in the outgoing government headed by Kadima's Ehud Olmert.
The stage is now set for a fierce tug-of-war between Lieberman, a hawkish government neophyte, and Barak, an experienced politician who has an international reputation for his attempts to make peace with Palestinians.
Hebrew University political scientist Reuven Hazan said that Netanyahu sought out moderates to assure the stability of the government. "Relying on only hawkish parties would have made running the country difficult and keeping the government intact a daily necessity that would have incurred the wrath not only of Israelis but also the new administration in Washington," he told McClatchy.
Tuesday's accord assures ministerial posts for five of the thirteen Labor parliament members and includes an agreement to abide by Israel's previous international commitments, such as the U.S.-organized Annapolis peace process and the internationally endorsed Road Map, which is to lead to a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu's biggest concessions, however, were in the social and economic spheres, Hazan said. "On the peace process, there are simply declarations which, if they are opposed by the hawkish elements could turn into hollow statements," he told McClatchy.
The Labor party acted after a tense debate. For many in the party, joining forces with Netanyahu was anathema, and a coalition with Lieberman was unthinkable.
"We enter this government as a spare part, a wagging tail," Labor member of parliament Sheli Yacimovich told a rally. "This is a government of (Netanyahu) . . . of Lieberman, with their principles, not our principles.
Supporters of the agreement, such as Yoram Marciano, argued that the party could best protect workers from the economic crisis from within the government. "Someone show me how, from the opposition, we can protect jobs," he said.
Although the agreement with Labor seems to put Netanyahu in a stable position, Hazan expressed doubts about the government's long-term stability. "If something happens in the region, and Israel has to react, with the government he has formed, if he goes to the right he will alienate the left, and if he goes to the left he will alienate the right. We may be seeing Netanyahu laying the seeds of his undoing."
(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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