PM-designate willing to give Defense to Labor chairman even if faction may split as a result.
By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMANPublished: MARCH 2, 2009 14:41Advertisement
Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu is so determined to have Labor chairman Ehud Barak as his defense minister that he is willing to give him the portfolio even if Barak is unable to bring his entire Labor faction into the coalition, sources close to Netanyahu said Monday, confirming a Channel 1 report.
Barak is determined to bring Labor into Netanyahu's coalition, but he is facing a potential rebellion inside his faction that could lead to a split. Factions can only break up legally if one third of its MKs leave, which in Labor's case would require five of the 13 Labor legislators.
"Even if he can only deliver a third he could remain defense minister," a source close to Barak said, adding that if Barak decided to quit the Knesset and join the government on his own without Labor, he would not receive the portfolio.
Netanyahu's associates explained that not only did Netanyahu trust Barak's security expertise, he also wanted a defense minister seen as dovish by the world in order to ease the international image of his government. In their Tel Aviv meeting on Sunday night, Barak told Netanyahu, "You need us more than we need you."
Barak tried unsuccessfully to persuade his faction to join the coalition in a stormy meeting on Monday. He said that he was under pressure from business leaders and military men to join, rather than play second fiddle behind Kadima leader Tzipi Livni in the opposition.
"If Labor won't be part of the coalition, it will lose all of its influence," Barak said. "I have a problem being a spare tire in the opposition. If you don't want to support me, there is the door." Barak told the faction that by joining the government, they could prevent Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman from becoming foreign minister and controversial Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann from maintaining his post and dilute the power of the Right.
Later on, when he saw Livni in the Knesset corridor, he told her that he believed Netanyahu had changed and that he would move forward on the diplomatic issue.
"He is more flexible than you think," Barak told Livni. "He gave the Palestinians more than all of us did together." Barak lashed out at his MKs in the faction meeting for protesting his talks with Netanyahu. He stressed that he had not made a final decision to join the government and that if he did, he would bring it to a vote in the Labor central committee.
"I don't think any meeting or conversation with a party head should cause such waves of emotions among MKs," Barak said. "I don't know if there will be more talks with Netanyahu and where they will lead, but I do know one thing: even if we don't enter the coalition, as it currently seems, we will know that we've acted in good faith."
Barak faced fierce criticism in the meeting from MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Ophir Paz-Pines and even from his longtime ally, Social Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog. National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon and Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i defended Barak.
"It's not true to say that our voters want us in the opposition," Vilna'i said. "Some want us in the coalition, some in the opposition. My view has always been that we have to influence from a place where we can get things done."
Barak's office denied reports that he had enlisted President Shimon Peres to lobby Laborites in favor of joining the government. But Likud MK Yuval Steinitz confirmed that he had asked the president to do so when he met with him Sunday.
While Barak would likely prefer that the National Union Party would be left out of the coalition if Labor would join, National Union MK Arye Eldad said he had no problem being part of a coalition with Barak as long as its coalition guidelines would not hint at the creation of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu told the Likud faction that he would do everything possible to build as wide a government as possible as soon as possible.
"The country needs a government," Netanyahu said. "We will build one soon because the events, the reality, the Kassams, the Iranian nuclear threat and the unemployment are not waiting for us. I haven't given up my hope to build a wide government. I met with Barak and will meet again with him. I hope this effort bears fruit."
Lieberman met with the heads of the four haredi and religious-Zionist parties on Monday and discussed matters of religion and state with them. United Torah Judaism head Ya'acov Litzman told Lieberman that two rabbinical judges would check what flexibility the party could show on the matter to allow a coalition to be built.
"The appointment of the rabbinical judges is a big achievement," Lieberman said after the meeting. "I never felt such an effort being made by the haredim before to reach a common ground."
Shelly Paz contributed to this report.
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