Netanyahu and Barak shake hands 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
A crucial Labor party convention kicked off at Tel Aviv's Exhibition Grounds late Tuesday afternoon during which a decision will be made on joining a Likud-led national unity government.
Earlier Tuesday, Labor chairman Ehud Barak and Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu and came to an agreement on a number of issues, apparently narrowing the gaps which would prevent Labor from joining the coalition.
According to Army Radio, Netanyahu promised that his government would honor all previous international agreements - including those made with the Palestinian Authority. Further, the Likud leader promised that his coalition would work towards a peace agreement with the Palestinian people, and in the region as a whole, the radio station reported.
Barak, the report went on, insisted that he be included in every forum where a diplomatic or security decision was being made. Netanyahu agreed to this demand, as well as the Labor leader's insistence that illegal outposts and settlement construction be restricted or dismantled according to law.
The negotiating team Barak appointed met overnight in an effort to reach a draft agreement that could be presented at the convention. Members of the Labor team complained throughout the day that the Likud was unwilling to compromise on key issues, but both sides expressed confidence that the deal would be finalized in time for the parley.
The deal is expected to give Labor five portfolios, two deputy ministers and a Knesset committee chairmanship. The guidelines will not use the phrase "two states for two peoples" but will make clear that past agreements with the Palestinians will be respected and that there will be a diplomatic process with the Palestinians and Syria that Barak would help lead.
Labor's team also asked for the right to vote their conscience against Israel Beiteinu's proposals for a loyalty oath for citizens, and to be consulted on reforms to the justice system.
Following the meeting, Netanyahu updated President Shimon Peres on the developments. Peres responded by saying that a national unity government "with as large a wingspan as possible" should be created.
The president does not normally interfere with Israeli politics. His statement is likely to influence many of the delegates who will be involved in the convention later in the day, and who were associated Peres when he was a member of the party.
Shortly after the announcement, senior Labor MK Isaac Herzog said he decided that he would express his support that the party join the coalition during a party convention to be held later on Tuesday.
"The agreement allows us to have important and dramatic influence on the way the country will be run for the next few years, and Labor will have significant involvement in implementing what it believes in: on welfare, economic, and security issues in the face of the challenges that the country is facing," Herzog said.
"It was a very difficult decision for me, and I'm aware of all of its meaning, and yet out of a feeling of responsibility, I believe that the political reality does not leave me any choice but to adopt the agreement and support it," he continued.
"I intend to respect any decision made by the convention and will work to prevent any split in the party that has been my political home my entire life," Herzog said.
The 1,478 convention delegates of the divided Labor Party will come together Tuesday afternoon at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds to discuss the agreement reached earlier in the day, and to decide whether to join Netanyahu's national-unity government or try to bring it down from the opposition.
Supporters and opponents of joining the government both expressed confidence on Monday that they would emerge victorious in the secret ballot vote, the results of which will be available as early as 8 p.m.
Three speakers from each side will try to persuade the delegates, led by Barak on one side and Labor secretary-general Eitan Cabel on the other.
"We have no doubt that we will win by a large margin," a Barak associate said. "All our polls show us winning 60 percent to 40%, and that's because our party activists understand that Labor cannot survive as an irrelevant party in the opposition."
Barak's opponents countered that they would win as long as Barak did not play a political trick that would influence the voting or call the results into question. The Labor Youth organization, which formed campaign teams around the country to lobby against joining the government, said 70% of the delegates claimed they would vote against Barak's proposal.
"Our main disadvantage is that we are playing against someone who doesn't abide by the rules and doesn't keep promises," Cabel said about Barak. "He can murder, rape and steal and get away with it.
"I don't know if we will win, but at least I will know I was on the right side of a battle that will go in the history books," he said.
Barak's proposal asks the delegates to approve the deal he is negotiating with the Likud, and to allow him to appoint ministers and deputy ministers without reconvening the convention.
As soon as the voting ends, the losing side will have to decide its future. If Barak loses, he will decide between honoring the results and remaining in the opposition, quitting politics or joining the government, either as a professional appointment or along with other Labor MKs.
If Barak's opponents in Labor lose, they have made clear that they would see themselves as part of the opposition even if their party joined the coalition, but would not split the party.
In a sign of how deep tensions are ahead of the vote, the seven Labor MKs who oppose joining the government sent a letter to Netanyahu on Monday morning warning him that the coalition negotiating team Barak appointed did not represent them but only "the Barak faction."
"The negotiations are being conducted without authorization in a gross violation of the party's bylaws," the MKs wrote Netanyahu. "You cannot count on our support for the agreements reached between the teams."
Barak responded that he appointed coalition negotiating teams when Kadima leader Tzipi Livni tried to form a government and no one objected. He said this proved his opponents were acting out of personal and political interests and not ideology.
"There is no legal problem with forming a negotiating team," Barak told Labor MKs. "We must engage in legitimate political dialogue about what is good for the country, what the people of Israel want and what is good for Labor, rather than writing ridiculous letters."
Sources close to Barak said he wished his opponents in the Labor faction were as careful about the clause in Labor's bylaws requiring them to abide by the decisions of the party's institutions as they were about regulations that did not exist.
They pointed out that Labor's constitution prevents MKs from running with the party for the next Knesset if they violate party discipline during Knesset votes.
On Tuesday, the tensions appeared to be at a boiling point when Barak called Cabel into his office and told him that he wanted to allow Shalom Simhon to run the convention instead. Simhon is a close associate of Barak.
Cabel refused the request and left the office fuming. A short while later, the Labor leader withdrew the request.
On Monday, Cabel mocked Barak for trying to resolve decades of conflicts with the Right during a few hours of negotiations. He noted that Shas had negotiated with Likud for four weeks, while Barak allocated just two days.
"Barak is trying to break a world record for solving an 100-year-old dispute," Cabel said. "It's not serious. The convention delegates see that Barak would join the government at any price and they won't let it happen."