Israel’s centre-left Labour party on Tuesday backed a proposal to join the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, in a move that will allow the leader of the rightwing Likud party to govern without the help of extremist fringe groups.
The deal, brokered in all-night talks between Mr Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the Labour leader, had faced stiff opposition from many senior officials and grassroots members of the centre-left party. It was backed despite the protests of such opponents at a special assembly of Labour officials.
For Mr Netanyahu, securing the Labour party and its 13 deputies as members of his governing coalition marks a crucial victory. From the moment he was asked to form the government, the Likud leader made it clear that he did not want his administration to rely exclusively on the support of right-wing, far-right and religious parties – an alliance that might lead to friction with the US and other allies.
With Labour on board, Mr Netanyahu’s coalition will control 66 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. This means he will no longer be obliged to find partners beyond those it has already signed up: Labour, the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party and Shas, which represents Israel’s ultra-orthodox religious community.
For Mr Barak, the deal means that he can continue as defence minister. Under the draft agreement, Labour will also be given the industry, agriculture and welfare portfolios. The deal promises that the next Israeli government will work towards a peace deal with the Palestinians and honour all the country’s previous international agreements, including with the Palestinian Authority. It is not clear, however, what impact these clauses will have on Mr Netanyahu‘s long-standing opposition to an independent Palestinian state.
As Labour officials gathered on Tuesday to debate the deal, many voiced outrage at Mr Barak’s plan to join a government dominated by right-wing and religious parties. Some voiced fears that the party could split and that a decision to join the government would further erode the party’s support among Israeli voters.
Eitan Cabel, the Labour secretary-general, told delegates at the heated convention: “Yes, I too want to be a minister, but that’s not why I went into politics. We have a way. We have faith and the thing that did us in over the past 10 years is the fact that we lost this faith.”
Mr Barak issued a vigorous defence of his position: “I am not afraid of Benjamin Netanyahu. We will not serve as anyone’s fig leaf. We will ensure there will not be a narrow right-wing government, but a real government that looks after Israel.”
Mr Netanyahu has until April 3 to announce the final shape of his government. He can still bolster the coalition’s ranks by inviting another ultra-orthodox party as well as two smaller, extreme far-right parties to join. However, crucially, the Likud leader no longer needs their support to be elected prime minister.
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