JERUSALEM – Israel’s Labor Party agreed 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 have set up a hard-line 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 to join his government, even offering Barak the chance to remain at the prestigious post of defense minister, 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.
Tuesday’s accord assures ministerial posts for five of the 13 Labor parliament members and includes an agreement to abide by Israel’s previous international commitments, such as the U.S.-organized Annapolis peace process.