Coalition talks underway to replace Labor ministers

Barak will remain defense minister; Agricultural Minister Shalom Simhon likely to replace Ben-Eliezer as Industry, Trade and Labor minister.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
January 18, 2011 01:25
4 minute read.
EHUD BARAK announces formation of new party

Independence faction 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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Coalition negotiations between the Likud and the newly formed Independence faction already began late Monday in an effort to replace the three Labor ministers who resigned from the government earlier in the day: Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben- Eliezer, Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog and Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman.

Ehud Barak received a commitment from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to keep him as defense minister.

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It appeared that his close ally, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, would be promoted to Ben-Eliezer’s job, and Ben-Eliezer’s current deputy Orit Noked, who represents Labor’s kibbutz sector, would replace Simhon.

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i will keep his present responsibilities for the home front while being promoted to minority affairs minister.

MK Einat Wilf, who is on maternity leave, will chair the Independence faction and will apparently become chairwoman of the Knesset Education Committee in several months, when she was supposed to receive the post under the coalition agreement between the Likud and Labor.

Shas asked to receive the Welfare and Social Services portfolio, but Netanyahu intends to keep it for the Likud. He will hold the post for a few weeks and then bestow it upon a Likud minister-without-portfolio, deputy minister or MK who proves his or her loyalty.

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Whatever deal is worked out with Barak’s allies must be submitted to the Knesset secretariat by Tuesday afternoon in order to be brought to a vote in the Knesset on Wednesday afternoon, when the three departing ministers’ resignations take effect.

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Earlier on Monday, Barak ended an era when he announced at a surprising Knesset press conference that he and four of his allies were leaving the Labor Party and forming a new faction called Independence.

Barak and his allies said they could no longer function in Labor due to the constant threats by ministers and MKs to break up the party if it did not leave Netanyahu’s coalition.

In meetings over the past two weeks at Netanyahu’s residences in Jerusalem and Caesarea, Barak, the prime minister and his chief of staff Natan Eshel hatched the plan to split Labor, which they kept a closely guarded secret until Monday morning.

Netanyahu’s associates denied reports that he had promised Barak he would enable him to run on the Likud’s list for the next Knesset.

Netanyahu: Government has become "much stronger"

The prime minister told the Likud faction that his government had ironically become “much stronger” with the departure of eight Labor MKs from the coalition, because the remaining 66 coalition lawmakers still wanted to be a part of it. He said this would convey to the international community that his government was stable, and there was no point in waiting for it to fall.

“The entire world knows, and so do the Palestinians, that this government will be here for the coming years, and it is with this government that it will have to conduct the peace process,” Netanyahu said. “I want to have [a peace process] and advance it on the basis of promoting our interests of achieving security and peace.”

Netanyahu thanked the ministers who quit and said that despite their political disagreements, he had enjoyed working with them. He praised them for what he said were their many professional accomplishments.

In his press conference, Barak said he had never intended to leave Labor and that he loved many of the party’s people, but that he was tired of apologizing for remaining in the government.

He compared himself to former prime ministers David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon, who all left their political parties and formed new ones.

“We are leaving today to independence,” Barak said. “We are leaving to a faction, movement and – eventually – a party that will be centrist, Zionist and democratic and act according to the legacy of Ben-Gurion.”

Barak denounced his critics in Labor who he said wanted it to go more and more to the Left. Wilf said the five MKs had decided that the best way to advance the diplomatic process was with the current government.

Simhon, who has chaired the Labor faction over the past year, said it had become four or five separate factions acting independently. He said that at times, he was the only Labor MK voting with the coalition.

“People ask if we are destroying Labor,” Simhon said. “We aren’t destroying Labor.

Labor was destroyed when a minority group refused to accept a decision of 2,500 members at a Labor convention [to enter the coalition].”

Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.

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