Mazal Mualem
March 24, 2009 - 12:00am

Senior Labor minister Isaac Herzog on Tuesday announced his support for party leader Ehud Barak's bid to bring the center-left Labor into a coalition headed by Prime Minister-Designate Benjamin Netanyahu.

"A far-right government could push us to the brink of catastrophe," he said. "If it was possible for a government to be formed in which we could have a truly dramatic influence over all aspects, then I would want to be there and think that my party will not be damaged as a result"

Herzog, who until recently had refrained from voicing his opinion, made the comments shortly after negotiators from Labor and Netanyahu's Likud initialed a draft coalition agreement. The move has been bitterly opposed by seven of the party's 13 MKs.

He added: "I believe the agreement will have a dramatic impact on the way Israel will be governed in the coming years."

Under the coalition deal, an administration led by Netanyahu would respect all of Israel's international agreements, a formula that includes accords envisaging Palestinian statehood.

But Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines, who opposes the move, said the agreement was a blatant attempt to throw sand in the eyes of both the public and Labor central committee members.

"They're trying to buy us off with portfolios and empty promises, but the central committee will show today that the Labor Party is not up for sale and that it did not finish its historic role," he said.

Barak, Netanyahu agree on draft coalition deal

The negotiating teams, which spent the night in last-minute talks, initialed the agreement ahead of a meeting of Labor's central committee later in the day, to which it will brought for approval.

According to the clauses in the deal being drafted, Israel will formulate a comprehensive plan for Middle East peace and cooperation, continue peace negotiations and commit itself to peace accords already signed.

The government will also enforce the law with regards to illegal West Bank outposts, the draft states, as well as illegal Palestinian construction.

It was also agreed that Barak would be involved in all diplomatic and defense decisions, and Labor was promised chairmanship of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee during the first third of the government's tenure.

Moreover, the sides agreed on an increase for pensioners' stipends, in addition to extending unemployment benefits by 30 days and vowing to keep
civil servant's salaries at their current rate.

Barak, who is also the outgoing Defense Minister, was set to face a dramatic political test at the central committee meeting, when he asks the 1,470 members of the committee to approve the deal he hatched with Prime Minister-designate Netanyahu.

While Netanyahu left the site of the talks in Ramat Gan by the mid-morning, Barak and his negotiators stayed on for further discussions, according to Army Radio.

In addition, Barak was to ask his party to give him the authority to determine which of the party's 13 Knesset members will be appointed to ministerial positions - a demand which is without precedent and which would require an amendment to the party's constitution.

Should Barak get the approval he is seeking, the rift between opponents of the coalition deal and its supporters would deepen still further.

All the signs are that the vote will be close and no one in the party is willing to predict which way members of the central committee will vote.

Opponents of Barak's proposal to join the coalition yesterday launched a particularly vitriolic broadside against their party leader, accusing him of "trying to turn Labor into Yisrael Beiteinu" and of "acting as if he got 50 seats in the Knesset, rather than suffering an electoral whipping."

Labor rebels: Barak doesn't represent us

The internal battle between Barak and the seven MKs who oppose him - Shelly Yachimovich, Ophir Pines-Paz, Eitan Cabel, Daniel Ben Simon, Amir Peretz, Yuli Tamir and Avishay Braverman - was taken up a notch on Monday when the Labor rebels sent an unprecedented letter to Netanyahu and his foreign minister-designate, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, in which they declared that they will not be bound by the coalition agreement that Labor and Likud are working on, since Barak was acting without authority.

"This is the first time in the history of the Labor Party," they wrote, "that the chairman has set up a coalition negotiating team without a thorough and extensive discussion within the party and without getting the approval of any of the party's organs. It is a gross violation of the party's constitution." The rebels also warned Netanyahu of the consequences of Barak's actions. "You should know," they wrote, "that the negotiating team established by the 'Barak faction' within the Labor Party does not enjoy our backing or the backing of any authorized party official. It is unfortunate that the party chairman chose to manage party matters in this way. Given the circumstances, we must inform you that you cannot count on our support regarding any agreement that you may reach with Ehud Barak."

Barak spoke later in the day with several of the MKs who oppose his proposals, telling them, "there is no legal impediment against establishing a negotiation team, and I will be happy to brief the party MKs on its progress. It is our duty to hold a legitimate political debate - on what is right for the State of Israel, on what the citizens want and on what is good for the party - instead of writing fallacious letters," Barak was quoted as saying.

Former Israel Defense Forces chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon (Likud), meanwhile, afforded Netanyahu a small measure of satisfaction on Monday when he declared that, given current circumstances, personal and party differences should be set aside in favor of the national interest. Until a few days ago, Ya'alon was considered the leading candidate to serve as defense minister in Netanyahu's government - a position that would remain with Barak if Labor does, indeed, join the coalition.


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