Barak strives to keep Labor party united

In rowdy convention, 680 to 507 back leader in vote to join Likud gov't; Labor chair to meet opponents.

barak goes mad 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
barak goes mad 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Labor chairman Ehud Barak will meet one-on-one with his opponents in the Labor faction on Wednesday to demand that they respect the decision by the party's convention on Tuesday night to join Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu's coalition. Barak will try to build on the momentum of his significant victory at the stormy convention. Out of the convention delegates who cast ballots, 680 voted for Barak's proposal and 507 against it. Netanyahu immediately called Barak to congratulate him and thank him for joining the next government. With Labor in hand, Netanyahu now wants to complete the process of forming a coalition by Monday. To that end, the Likud's negotiating team will meet on Wednesday with representatives of Habayit Hayehudi and United Torah Judaism. But it was still unclear following the convention how many Labor MKs would see themselves as part of the coalition. MK Daniel Ben-Simon announced that he would accept the decision, giving Barak a 7-6 majority in the faction. Other Labor lawmakers who opposed joining the government said they would remain in the party, but would see themselves as part of the opposition. Barak's associates said he would try to unify his party's ranks, but he would tell the rebels that he would not accept insubordination. "We have been through a crisis, but now it's over," Barak will tell the MKs, according to his associates. "The decision must be respected. Whoever doesn't accept the decision doesn't belong in Labor." Meretz chairman Haim Oron called on the Labor rebels to join with his party in the opposition. Sources close to Kadima leader Tzipi Livni said Labor had proved itself so pathetic that it left her speechless. Tensions in Labor appeared to hit a boiling point even before the convention began, when Barak called party secretary-general Eitan Cabel into his office and said that he wanted to allow a political ally to run the convention instead of him. Cabel refused the request and left the office fuming. A short while later, Barak gave in to Cabel and withdrew the request. Barak's associates said his worries were later proven correct when Cabel allowed an extra speaker against joining the government, violating the deal Barak had worked out with Cabel in advance of the parley. That speaker was the harshest critic of joining the next government, MK Ophir Paz-Pines. "[Former prime ministers] David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin are turning over in their graves," Paz-Pines shouted emphatically. "They formed this country, and we are privileged to continue their path. We in Labor have an obligation to maintain their honor and our spine. We are expected to maintain Labor's values and not act like the lowest politician by joining every government." Paz-Pines said Netanyahu was building the most right-wing extremist government Israel had ever had and was looking for a fig leaf. Turning to Barak, he said: "You did not receive a mandate to throw us in the dust bin of history! You have lost your leadership, because leadership is not zigzagging, it's telling the truth!" Barak spoke immediately after Paz-Pines and made an impassioned defense of his decision to take the party into the government. Repeatedly quoting Rabin, he said that Israelis had no spare country and that a majority of them and of Labor's voters wanted to see the party in the coalition. "Whoever wants Labor as a spare tire in the opposition instead of a counterweight to the Right in the government doesn't know what he is talking about," Barak said. "I will not be anyone's fig leaf. I will be a counterweight to make sure there won't be a right-wing extremist government. I am not here to run after a cabinet seat. Whoever thinks I care only about my personal survival should see that we are doing what is unpopular, because it is right for the public." Barak's ally, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, outlined for delegates the coalition deal that he had negotiated with Likud representatives in more than 14 hours of marathon talks at Ramat Gan's Kfar Hamaccabiah Hotel. Netanyahu and Barak joined the talks after 4 a.m. on Tuesday to clinch the deal. The deal gives Labor five portfolios, two deputy ministers and the chairmanship of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, even though only four Labor MKs supported joining the government when it was signed. After seeing the agreement, Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog and MK Orit Noked announced their support for joining the government. Barak's associates expressed confidence that enough Labor MKs would be found to fill the positions. Likud sources said it was still possible that portfolios could be removed from the party if Barak did not bring enough of a dowry of legislators with him into the coalition. Besides Barak, Herzog and Simhon, who will remain in their current posts, MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer is expected to shift to the Industry, Trade and Labor portfolio and Barak will appoint a minister-without-portfolio in charge of minorities. On diplomatic issues, the deal says the Netanyahu government will pursue a regional diplomatic accord and respect agreements signed in the past. Barak will be a partner in any diplomatic initiatives. Netanyahu updated President Shimon Peres on the terms of the deal. Peres responded by saying that a national unity government "with as large a wingspan as possible" should be created. The president's statement could have influenced many convention delegates who were associated with him when he was a member of the Labor Party during most of his political career. Matt Zalen contributed to this report.