Thursday, March 26, 2009

Labor Party Okays Coalition Deal

Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu and Hillel Fendel Labor Party Okays Coalition Deal

The Labor party’s Central Committee voted 58-42 percent Tuesday night to give the go-ahead for the party to join a Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition. Leaders of the losing camp warned that the victory by party chairman Ehud Barak will lead to the death of the party. Barak, who stands to retain his position of Defense Minister in the coalition, overcame fierce opposition by party ideologists and executed another in a series of reversals of previous statements. Immediately after Labor’s drubbing in the February elections for the new Knesset, he said that the public had decided it wants Labor in the opposition.

He now has argued that the public wants Labor to join the coalition ”for the good of the country,” and he negotiated a preliminary coalition agreement with Likud that was concluded on Monday even though the Labor Central Committee had not yet voted.

The new pact gives Likud chairman Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu an absolute majority of 66 Knesset Members, without the inclusion of United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and the two national religious parties, Ichud Leumi (National Union) and Jewish Home. The vote in effect turns the Likud government from nationalist-religious to centrist.

The Labor party' decision also affects the coalition agreement by Likud and Israel Is Our Home (Yisrael Beiteinu), headed by MK Lieberman. That deal, which includes a number of cabinet posts for Yisrael Beiteinu, was signed with the understanding that it would change if Labor or Kadima were to join the government.

Prime Minister-designate Netanyahu promised Labor leader Barak five ministerial posts and will bump Likud MK Moshe Ya’alon, a former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, from the Defense Ministry position.

Barak was strongly backed by Histadrut union leader Ofir Eini and five MKs, most of them ministers in the outgoing government. Against these six stood seven Labor MKs, headed by former party leader Amir Peretz.

Nissim Zvili, former Secretary-General of the Labor Party, said, "I have not been involved in a while, but I came to vote today, and I had the feeling that no matter how the vote goes, this was the funeral of the Labor Party."

Pro and Con

Representatives of both camps attempted to gain last-minute supporters in their speeches at the loud and intense party gathering Tuesday afternoon. Barak said, “I don’t need any jobs or positions in the government. I have been Prime Minister, and Defense Minister, Minister of the Interior and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and IDF Chief of Staff… The party is important, but we also have to look out for the good of the nation. A narrow right-wing government is not good for Israel at this time."

"As Yitzchak Rabin used to say, we don’t have a ‘spare’ country, and this is true now as well," Barak told the party members.

MK Eitan Cabel, on the other hand, called on the Central Committee members to "vote against those who wish to destroy our home [the Labor Part."

MK Shelly Yechimovich, an ardent opponent of joining the coalition government, elaborated: “If until now, we were a fifth wheel in the Kadima government, and we dropped from 19 to 13 Knesset seats, this time we will be totally useless in the right-wing Netanyahu-Lieberman government - a government that is not ours and that is not based on our guidelines -- and we will be totally erased in the next elections. If the Labor Party disappears, the country will lose out by not having a party that stands for [what we stand fo… A party has to know how to sit in the Opposition. I could be a minister if I want, but I am very happy to be a Knesset Member.”

Yechimovich said earlier in the day that though she does not claim to have a monopoly on party idealism, “I can assure you that if the supporters of joining the government would not have been offered ministerial portfolios, they would not be so emphatically in favor of joining.”

Cabel also denied charges that he does not care about what is good for the country: “I love the State and am willing to give my life for it. There is not a group that does love and another that does not love the State… Things might have been very different today [i.e., Labor might not have dropped to 13 seats – ed had we quit the Kadima government after the Winograd Report, as I demanded at the time.”

Barkai: Death Either Way

Army Radio media personality Razi Barkai said Labor would have been better advised not to join the coalition: "Either way, the party is in very bad shape. But if it joins the coalition, it will die in a humiliating manner, while if it remains in the opposition, at least its burial will be respectable."

In an unprecedented move, Barak appointed a team to negotiate with the Likud even before the party had authorized him to do so, despite the opposition to the move within Labor. This prompted a letter from the seven "rebel" MKs to the Likud, warning that they do not see themselves obligated to back promises made by an unauthorized team.

Shalom Simchon, who stands to continue in his position as Agriculture Minister and who led the negotiations on behalf of Labor, said he felt that the letter-writers had “stabbed him in the back” by writing it.

Welfare Minster Yitzchak Herzog announced Tuesday morning, after long deliberations, that he favors joining the coalition.

Ironically, the agreement with the Likud is so favorable for Labor that it is not certain whether there will be enough MKs to fill the positions Labor has been offered. The agreement stipulates that Labor will have five Cabinet ministers, two deputy ministers, and the rotating head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee – more positions than the six MKs who support the agreement can fill.

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