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(photo credit: GPO)
Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu arrived in Beit Hanassi on Friday morning and was expected to request from President Shimon Peres to be given more time to set up a governing coalition.
According to law, Netanyahu can be given by Peres 14 more days for the task. The Likud leader will request the extension while making supreme efforts to lure Labor, which gained 13 Knesset seats, to join his coalition and form a wide unity government.
He turned to Labor after being refused by Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, despite lengthy negotiations.
Netanyahu's efforts to bring Labor into a national unity government ignited fury inside his Likud faction on Thursday as MKs blasted the move for both ideological and political reasons.
Some MKs said they felt uncomfortable with Netanyahu trying so hard to avoid forming a homogeneous coalition of 65 MKs on the Right.
Others questioned the price he was willing to pay to bring in Labor when more than half its 13 MKs fiercely opposed joining.
But what made Likud MKs most angry was his unprecedented decision not to give any of the top three portfolios to his party colleagues.
If the Labor convention passes party chairman Ehud Barak's proposal to begin formal negotiations with Likud and the party joins the coalition, Barak will be defense minister, Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman foreign minister, and Netanyahu still intends to keep the Finance portfolio for himself, with his loyalist, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, serving as a minister-without-portfolio in the Treasury under him.
Likud MKs relayed messages to Netanyahu on Thursday that he would have a problem inside his party if the top portfolio he distributed to one of them was the Education Ministry.
The MKs renewed efforts to persuade Netanyahu to honor his pledge to his party rival, MK Silvan Shalom, to give him the top Likud portfolio, which would be the Finance Ministry.
"Before Labor entered the picture, Bibi [Netanyahu] could get away with keeping the Finance Ministry for himself, because Bogie [Likud MK Moshe Ya'alon] would be defense minister, but now if he did that, there won't be any big portfolio left for the Likud, so he has no choice but to give it to Silvan," a Likud MK said.
Likud MKs have an interest in ensuring that Shalom be finance minister and not a less prestigious portfolio, because his appointment would clear the way for them to receive better portfolios among those that Netanyahu leaves for his party's ministers.
Likud MKs said the shortage of top portfolios could cause problems between Netanyahu and MK Dan Meridor and with Ya'alon, whose dream job was taken away from him and offered to Barak.
Ya'alon declined to comment.
"Publicly, none of us can attack Netanyahu for reaching out to Labor, because it's good for the country, but privately everyone is very upset," a Likud MK said.
One Likud MK said it was "pathetic" that while Netanyahu had left so few portfolios for his own party, he had offered Labor five ministries, two deputy ministers and a committee chairmanship, even though the only Labor MKs who openly supported entering the government were Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Shalom Simhon and Matan Vilna'i.
MKs Isaac Herzog and Orit Noked have not made a final decision yet.
Netanyahu tried unsuccessfully to persuade Labor MKs Eitan Cabel and Avishay Braverman to support joining the government on Thursday. He reportedly told them that they could have any portfolio they wanted.
"Labor must rehabilitate itself in the opposition as Likud did under Netanyahu," Cabel said following his meeting with the Likud leader at Tel Aviv's Crowne Plaza Hotel.
Netanyahu responded that "the good of the nation requires the cooperation of the best of our forces, and that's why it is correct and essential for Labor to join a national unity government."
If Barak's proposal passes, the Likud leader will leave the far-Right National Union Party out of the coalition at Labor's request.
Although it was originally set for Tuesday, it was not clear at press time that the decisive Labor convention would take place on that day. Labor's law committee decided late Thursday night that Barak had the power to schedule the event for whenever he saw fit. Earlier Thursday, opponents of joining the government tried to delay the meeting.
"We will not allow anyone to trample the party's constitution, and we will maintain the set procedure of convening the convention, which takes three weeks," said Labor's legal adviser, Yoram Avrahami, who is close to Cabel. "Netanyahu's timetable is irrelevant."
Barak, however, dismissed the legalities, saying that the needs of the state must supersede those of the party.
"The party's institutions will meet very soon," he said during a noon-time interview with Israel Radio. "No legal shenanigans or procedural shtick will prevent Labor members from convening."
Attorney Dekel David-Ozer submitted a petition to Labor's court on Thursday, calling for Barak's dismissal and a primary to replace him within 90 days.
Labor MKs who oppose joining the government met at the party's Tel Aviv headquarters to plan strategy. They denied reports that they would consider breaking off from the party if the convention passed Barak's proposal, but they said they would not support the government even if it passed.
Barak responded angrily, telling Channel 10 that his opponents in the party had proven that "they don't care about democracy."
He was backed up by a Shvakim Panorama poll on Israel Radio that found that 64 percent of Labor voters wanted the party to join the coalition.
The same poll found that 74% of Kadima voters wanted their party in the government, but Livni reiterated that she wanted Kadima to be in the opposition. As expected, sources close to Kadima's Shaul Mofaz said Netanyahu's decision to give the Defense portfolio to Barak made it even more unlikely than it had been before that he would break off from Kadima along with other MKs to join the coalition.
The Jerusalem Post reported exclusively earlier this week that the Likud had decided to change the law in order to make it easier for MKs to break off from their parties. Sources close to Livni said she would try to persuade disgruntled Labor MKs to break off from their party and join Kadima.
Matt Zalen contributed to this report.