By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
Both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Labor chairman Ehud Barak began efforts on Thursday to use diplomatic progress on their trip to Washington to try to prevent a Labor split and keep the coalition intact.
Sources close to the two leaders said the overtures Netanyahu had delivered to the Palestinians via US President Barack Obama and to the Syrians via French President Nicholas Sarkozy were intended to ignite the diplomatic process for Israel's well-being, but that political capital could be also be a welcome byproduct.
"A diplomatic process is important to maintain good relations with the US and European Union, to prevent the strengthening of Hamas and to improve our economy," a Netanyahu associate said. "The prime minister also wants to keep Labor unified inside the coalition, so it's good that diplomatic progress could also help that."
Netanyahu briefed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman about his trip on Thursday, and he is expected to update Labor ministers and MKs next week. The most important briefing will be reserved for Labor MK Daniel Ben-Simon, who holds the key to keeping Netanyahu's coalition together.
If Ben-Simon gives the Labor rebels the fifth MK needed to split the party, Netanyahu will be in an awkward situation, because he would have a hard time justifying keeping Labor in his coalition with five portfolios and two deputy ministers for its remaining eight MKs.
Despite reports that Netanyahu had sent peace overtures to Syrian leader Bashar Assad, right-wing ministers Moshe Ya'alon, Yisrael Katz, Eli Yishai, and Daniel Herschkowitz all declined to express concern.
"The prime minister's clarification that he did tell Assad he was ready to give up the Golan was important," Herschkowitz said. "The government of Israel has an obligation to safeguard the Golan, and Syria has an obligation to disconnect from the axis of evil."
Barak told Labor ministers in their weekly meeting Thursday that significant diplomatic progress had been made in Washington. He invited Ben-Simon to the meeting, and the ministers ganged up on him to persuade him to stay in the party.
Ben-Simon told the ministers what he had announced at Sunday's Labor rebel conference: that if there were no diplomatic breakthrough and improvement in relations inside Labor within three months, he would join the rebels and split the party. Barak and the ministers reacted angrily.
Barak's allies - Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer - advised Ben-Simon not to set deadlines and issue ultimatums. They told Ben-Simon that from their extensive experience in politics, they had learned that such moves were not smart politically.
"The rebel conference was shooting inside the camp," the defense minister said. "I formed a team to reach out to the rebels and unify the party, and my hand is outstretched to everyone. Every mandate Labor won belongs to the party. The mandate is not Ben-Simon's or Ben-Eliezer's or anyone else's, so anyone who has a problem with Labor should [quit the Knesset and] return the mandate to the party."
Ben-Simon had lunch with Meretz leader Haim Oron on Thursday. Oron told Ben-Simon that his agenda matched that of the larger political framework that Meretz had been trying to form, and he would be welcome in it if he left Labor.
Netanyahu's step toward Syria and his denial that he had agreed to give up the Golan were greeted in opposite fashion by the Left and Right.
"The prime minister keeps on proving that he only cares about keeping his coalition together," Kadima MK Majallie Whbee said. "Netanyahu is ready to talk to everyone and not give anything to anyone other than the extreme Right and Shas, which get everything they ask for."
Far-Right Likud activist Moshe Feiglin warned Netanyahu against relinquishing the Golan.
"Netanyahu was elected to head the Likud on the basis of keeping the Golan," Feiglin said. "If he violates this promise, I will work for new elections for the Knesset and head of the Likud."
var cont = `Stay Informed
As the war against Hamas unfolds, our unwavering newsroom remains committed to covering Israel's most profound crisis.
Sign up for our newsletter to get real-time news and in-depth analysis from our top reporters.