Tensions flare as Labor's decision looms

Both sides in dispute think losers will split party; Shas set to sign coalition deal with Likud today.

Isaac Herzog 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Isaac Herzog 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tensions flared in the Labor Party over the weekend ahead of Tuesday's decisive convention that will determine whether the party will begin negotiations with the Likud about forming a national-unity government. Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu received a two-week extension from President Shimon Peres on Friday so he could pursue talks with Labor. The new deadline to form a coalition is Sunday, April 5, only a few days before Pessah. "I could have presented a government to you and the people of Israel by Sunday's deadline, but I decided to request an extension in order to do everything possible to bring about a national-unity government, as I promised the citizens of Israel during the election," Netanyahu told Peres at Beit Hanassi. Coalition talks with the religious parties will continue on Sunday despite the uncertainty over what Labor will do. Shas officials said it was likely that they would sign a coalition deal with Likud representatives on Sunday. Party chairman Eli Yishai called Labor MKs over the weekend to push them to join the coalition. Sources close to Netanyahu were divided Saturday night on the question of whether he would want Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak as his defense minister, even if he lost the convention vote and quit the Knesset. One Netanyahu associate said yes, but another speculated that he would not risk angering Likud MKs by bringing in another outsider to a top portfolio at the Likud's expense, as he did with his candidate for justice minister, Yaakov Neeman. The Labor faction continued to be divided on whether to join the coalition, with seven MKs vehemently opposed, four in favor and Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog and MK Orit Noked undecided. Herzog told a meeting of Labor youth activists on Friday that he was facing his toughest decision since entering politics. "A leader has a right to waver," said Herzog, whose endorsement could tip the scales in one direction or another. "Both sides have their advantages and disadvantages." But MKs who oppose joining slammed Herzog, calling his indecision "immoral." "A leader has no right to waver," a Labor MK said. "He must make a decision and be willing to pay a personal price. Herzog is playing both camps. I don't think his behavior will win him respect." Those opposed to joining denied a Channel 2 report that if they lose on Tuesday, they would break off from Labor and form a new party called "New Labor: The Social-Democratic Party." They vowed to remain in the party but not support the government if the party joined the coalition. "Labor is my party and I'm staying no matter what the convention's decision will be," MK Shelly Yacimovich said. "If anyone tries to split the party, I won't join them." Opponents of joining the government said they were convinced that Barak would try to split the party if he lost Tuesday's vote. They noted that when he was asked whether he would do so in an interview with Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea on Friday, he refused to answer the question. "The question is illegitimate," a Barak associate said. "The question should not be about splitting and personal issues but about what is right for the country and the party and what most of the public wants." A Barak associate said that if anyone would split from the party, it would be his critics in the faction if they lost Tuesday's vote. In a meeting with Labor activists at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel on Friday, MK Ophir Paz-Pines, who vigorously opposes joining the coalition, warned that there could be a split in the party no matter how Tuesday's vote ended up. "Any decision at the convention could cause a rift that will be hard to bridge," Paz-Pines said. "The party is a part of our lives. I cannot speak easily about splitting. But what's happening goes to the essence of what we believe in and such an essential matter could rip the party to shreds." Paz-Pines said he would have an easier time accepting joining a Netanyahu-led coalition had Barak insisted that Kadima also join. The press reported over the weekend that Netanyahu told Kadima leader Tzipi Livni in a meeting a week and a half ago that he was willing to bring in either Kadima or Labor into the coalition but not both.