TEL AVIV – The Labor Party just handed a crucial vote of confidence to its leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, after the party's central committee overwhelmingly ratified a coalition agreement reached Tuesday morning (read story here) to join Israel's new right-wing dominated government.
The real winner, however, is not Mr. Barak (who gets to keep his job in the new government), but Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu. If Israelis and the rest of the world were wringing their hands over Mr. Netanyahu's coalition of right-wing and religious groups, the new prime minister can now point to Barak. With Barak's dovish Labor Party in the government, Netanyahu can boast that his coalition represents a broad swath of the Israeli public. He can talk about a unity government.
What makes the move even more strange is that it leaves outgoing Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni and her centrist Kadima party – which is closer to the Likud on the political spectrum – in the opposition. Will there be more pressure on Ms. Livni to join the government? Possibly, but it seems that Livni has staked out her new job as Israeli opposition leader.
Though Barak had to overcome accusations that he was selling out the Labor Party's ideology, and warnings of a rupture in the party, some of his opponents have already said they won't move to split the party. That means that Netanyahu will enjoy a coalition of at least 69 Knesset members. It remains to be seen, however, how much influence the Labor Party will have on government policy. They're a minority in the coalition of right wing and religious parties.
It's worth noting that it was Barak who unseated Netanyahu as prime minister in the elections of 1999, so it’s a bit ironic that it's Barak who is now giving a big boost to Netanyahu. It will be interesting to see how the partnership between Israel's newest political odd couple works out.