Summit convincing Barak to stay in gov't

Barak to return from Annapolis Thursday straight to meeting of Labor's executive committee.

Barak intense 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Barak intense 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Defense Minister Ehud Barak's promise to reconsider Labor's presence in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government when the Winograd Report comes out appeared less likely than ever to be kept Wednesday when Barak told confidants about the importance of the peace process that began in Annapolis. Barak, who initially was skeptical that anything positive would come out of Annapolis, told confidants that he was impressed by the conference, the presence of representatives of so many Arab countries and by Olmert's speech. He will return from Washington Thursday straight to a meeting of Labor's executive committee, where he will present the Annapolis process as a "can't-miss opportunity." Most of Barak's close allies in the party are urging him to keep the party in the coalition to push the diplomatic process forward. They said Labor members overwhelmingly supported remaining in the government, despite Barak's commitments when he was running for Labor leader. "The rank and file of the party don't want to leave this government, period," Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog said. "When Winograd comes out, we will read it and examine the situation, but it would be a mistake to break up this government. Will we be able to look Bush in the eye and say this process that began is very nice but now we have to delay it for a year." Barak already hinted in a radio interview Thursday that he was leaning toward remaining in the government when he said that he would do "what is best for the country and not what is best for the party or for me." Herzog clarified Barak's statement saying that "what is best for the country is Labor staying in this government." But Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel, who quit the cabinet after the release of the initial Winograd Report, said Barak would have to honor his commitment to remove Labor from the government or risk losing his credibility ahead of an election where leadership and trust will be major issues. "Barak has no choice," Cabel said. "There is no ladder waiting for him. He has to be a leader. We can win the next election and continue negotiations with the Palestinians on our own with full force." Olmert called ministers from Annapolis to reassure them that the conference went Israel's way. Sources close to the prime minister boasted that unlike past diplomatic conferences that resulted in the breakup of coalitions, the heads of Israel Beiteinu and Shas announced immediately after Olmert's Annapolis speech that they would remain in the government. Shas chairman Eli Yishai even bragged in the party's official newspaper Yom Leyom about how he succeeded in toning down Annapolis and persuading Olmert not to include a specific reference to dividing Jerusalem. Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post that Olmert kept an agreement between the two not to mention the core issues of the conflict in Annapolis. He mocked the Likud for trying to pressure his party to leave the government after a Likud-led government withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. "The Likud allowed disengagement to happen, so they are in no position to scold us," Lieberman said. "If the government's current direction is dismantling outposts, we are out, but if the direction is dismantling the Hamas in Gaza, we are in." Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu told Israel Radio that he expected Shas and Israel Beiteinu to honor their commitments to their voters, who overwhelmingly oppose Annapolis, and leave the coalition. He lashed out at Olmert for agreeing to a tight timetable for the diplomatic process and for making concessions without receiving anything in return. "Olmert is negotiating with a gun to his head," Netanyahu said. "He said the process was rife with dangers. Excuse me? I thought a peace process was supposed to decrease the danger. I was expecting the prime minister to stand up for our national interests but instead, he conceded our security. This is not how you make peace." Sheera Claire Frankel contributed to this report.