In Israel, Labor's move to join Netanyahu coalition draws dovish fire

Ehud Barak says he could act as a counterweight to far-right and religious coalition members.

Hoping to buy some geopolitical maneuvering room, Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu initialed a deal on Tuesday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak to include his dovish Labor Party in the new Israeli government.

Mr. Netanyahu wants Mr. Barak to keep his job, which would allow him to act as a counterweight to far-right and religious coalition members. Those partners oppose any hint of negotiations to relinquish land to Israel's neighbors, thus risking further diplomatic isolation for the Jewish state.

Moreover, Barak's presence as defense minister will allay concern about the influence of ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman – tapped as foreign minister – on policymaking regarding Iran's growing power.

"Internationally, it improves matters. There is a perception was that it was an extreme right-wing coalition," says Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University. "If there is a need to do something about the nuclear capability of Iran, it's much easier now. Barak has proven himself to be cautious."

Professor Diskin notes that it was Barak who first pressed to withdraw Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip during the recent war with Hamas.

The move to join Netanyahu highlights Barak's position as a conservative among peaceniks. As a member of the outgoing government, he often staked out positions to the right of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of the centrist Kadima party.

Barak was criticized by the left for failing to dismantle unauthorized settlement outposts and allowing the expansion of recognized Jewish settlements despite the negative impact of that stance on peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Barak's courtship with Netanyahu has stirred a bitter rebellion among Labor members of parliament and threatens a split in the party. If Barak were to go into the opposition, he would face a battle to remain party leader; many members have charged that he prefers a seat in the cabinet to preserving the party's interests.

Labor, the standard bearer of the left, is in deep crisis after finishing fourth in recent elections. It received just over 10 percent of the total vote.

The bitter mood played out at a party convention Tuesday, where Barak's plan was up for ratification. If rejected, Barak could join the cabinet on his own.

Explaining his change of heart, after initially declaring that Labor would sit in the opposition, Barak argued he and his allies are putting Israel's interests first.

"We need to ask what is good for the state, what is good for the party and for us,'' he said, according to the Haaretz website. Alluding to the peace process and Iran, he stated that by joining the government, "we will ensure we won't miss diplomatic opportunities and we won't be dragged into irreversible [military] adventures."

But Labor opponents warn that with only 13 parliamentary seats, the party will be merely a fig leaf for a government resting on about 70 lawmakers, most of whom are either nationalist or religious.

In the Feb. 10 vote, Barak was upstaged by Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni's Kadima party, which finished first on the strength of dovish voters who once supported Labor. Ms. Livni decided to remain outside the coalition because Netanyahu refused to commit to a two-state solution.

Barak opponents argue that the only way Labor can hope to reclaim its standing as the leading alternative to Likud and the right is if it remains outside the coalition. Even outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying that Barak would be making a "historic" mistake.

"This pursuit of [political] seats is ... costing us disgrace and shame," said Labor lawmaker Shelly Yachimovich, according to the Israeli website Ynet. "In the next election we won't receive any [seats]. Choose life over death."

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