Barak tells MKs: We must join coalition

Labor chair makes about-face; Mofaz expected to push Livni to form negotiating team for coalition talks.

Netanyahu and Barak shake hands 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
Netanyahu and Barak shake hands 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
Labor chairman Ehud Barak has called Labor MKs in recent days and told them that the party should join a national unity government led by Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, sources close to Barak said Sunday. Barak's associates confirmed a Channel 2 report that he had called Labor MKs to check whether he could obtain a majority in the faction for joining the government, but that he might try to bring Labor into the coalition without his faction's support. "We have to go in," Barak told the MKs. "Be on my side. I don't care if I don't have a majority in the faction. I can pass it in the central committee." A source close to Barak said the party leader felt it would be better for the country and for himself to remain defense minister, and that it was now a matter of persuading his party that this would not harm Labor. The fact that Kadima leader Tzipi Livni would be opposition leader and that Labor could at best play second-fiddle in the opposition had to be taken into account, the source said. The Channel 2 report said that National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon supported Barak's effort to join the government. But Ben-Eliezer denied the report, and even MK Orit Noked, considered the Labor MK most in favor of joining the government, said she believed Labor's downfall from 19 seats to 13 required that the party remain in the opposition. Netanyahu and Barak met for two hours at Tel Aviv's Crowne Plaza Hotel on Sunday night and discussed the possibility of Labor joining the coalition. Both sides said the meeting was positive and that the next meeting between the two would be decisive in determining Labor's fate. "We talked about the challenges Israel is facing on security and economic issues and the meeting will continue [in the coming days]," Barak said. Netanyahu said after the meeting that he would work to guarantee Israel's future security by building a national unity government. "It is clear to everyone that Israel is facing a test with challenges that we have never faced before and therefore national responsibility requires taking them seriously," he said. "I will make every effort to present the widest front possible to deal with these challenges, and therefore I will continue talking to the defense minister." Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz will push Livni in Monday's faction meeting to form a negotiating team for coalition talks, or at least appoint a mediator. He is expected to receive support from several MKs, including Ronit Tirosh, Otniel Schneller, Arye Bibi and Rober Tibaev. Other MKs who oppose remaining in the opposition, such as Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, are unlikely to back him. But senior Kadima officials said that as long as Mofaz did not have a majority, it didn't matter whether he was backed by three MKs or 12. "I don't think Mofaz will be alone, but there is no chance to change Livni's opinion, and therefore there won't be a change in the faction's opinion," one of Kadima's top MKs said. "There has been no chance of us joining for a long time. It's the prerogative of a leader to make a decision not to join, especially a leader who has succeeded like she has." In a reference to the rebellion in Likud against former prime minister Ariel Sharon, the MK added that "the last time a party rebelled against its leader, it fell from 40 seats to 12 shortly thereafter." A source close to Mofaz said he had not yet decided whether to insist on a vote in the faction on forming a negotiating team, but MKs speculated that he would not push for a vote if the result would embarrass him. "Either way, he will get points for displaying courage on the public's behalf," the source said. Acting under the assumption that Netanyahu will have no choice but to form a narrow coalition of 65 MKs, Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman will meet on Monday afternoon with the heads of the religious parties in an effort to reach a compromise on matters of religion and state. The Likud formed coalition negotiating subcommittees to deal with issues in greater depth. Matters of religion and state will be handled by Netanyahu adviser Natan Eshel and Likud MK Ze'ev Elkin. The team in charge of finding compromises on the electoral system will be led by Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar. Former Labor chairman MK Amir Peretz criticized Barak on Sunday for even thinking of entering a Likud-led government. "If Barak tries to join the government as defense minister, the party will not be behind him," Peretz warned. "This is Barak's right, to join the government as a professional appointment to the Defense Ministry, but that is a problem when he heads a party that doesn't agree with Netanyahu on the most crucial matters, such as collapsing Hamas's government in Gaza." Peretz told Army Radio Barak had "no chance" of obtaining a party majority. "Even if Livni heads the opposition and we are a 'spare tire' there, we can be a very critical tire because we have a comprehensive agenda," he said. Shelly Paz contributed to this report.