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Labor Votes To Join Netanyahu Coalition

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By Howard Schneider and Samuel Sockol
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

JERUSALEM, March 24 -- Israel's Labor Party voted Tuesday to join the coalition government of incoming Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a pairing of historical opponents sealed by a round of political haggling.

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Led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, Labor delegates agreed that their 13 recently elected Knesset members would help Netanyahu form a majority in the Israeli parliament. The deal gives Netanyahu a bloc of at least 66 votes in the 120-member body, but even more importantly, it brings a sense of ideological diversity to a coalition that would otherwise have been narrowly drawn. Barak will remain as defense minister.

Labor has roots in the Israeli union and social democratic movements, and it has advocated negotiations toward the creation of a Palestinian state. On the surface, its philosophy seems at odds with Netanyahu's Likud party and other more right-leaning factions that will form the core of the new government, and that have been critical of U.S.-backed peace talks.

In recent days, the two sides negotiated hard-to-come-to terms. Labor, a dominant political force through much of Israel's history, has been losing support in recent elections. Barak argued to skeptical colleagues in Labor that joining the government was a way to shape events from the inside, rather than in opposition. Netanyahu, at risk of clashing with the United States and other Western nations, wanted to avoid relying on a collection of small religious and nationalist parties in assembling a majority.

Likud and Labor have joined forces before but usually as rough equals in a national unity government. This time, Labor is clearly the junior partner.

"This is what the nation needs -- Likud, Labor, Shas and Lieberman in one government headed by Binyamin Netanyahu," said Miri Regev, a Likud member of the Knesset. "It is a balanced combination." She was referring to the four factions that form the core of Netanyahu's group, which includes the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and Yisrael Beitenu (Israel, Our Home), led by ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman.

Barak said at a party convention that as part of the government, "I won't be anyone's fig leaf or anyone's third wheel."

"We will be the counterweight that will guarantee that we won't have a narrow, right-wing government but a real government that will take care of the state of Israel," he said.

The coalition deal includes concessions for some of the Labor Party's key constituencies, such as money for the government civil service union's pension, said Gabriel Sheffer, a political scientist at Hebrew University.

"He ensured concessions to all of the interest camps within Labor -- the pensioners and others with very clear interests," Sheffer said.

The decision was not without controversy. The vote at the Labor convention was split 680 to 507. There were loud boos from the floor and lingering threats of a rupture within the party over the issue.

Labor's deal leaves the centrist Kadima as the only major party left out of the new government. Kadima won the most seats in Israel's recent elections, taking 28 compared with Likud's 27. But Israeli President Shimon Peres asked Netanyahu to form the government after concluding that Kadima would not be able to draw Likud or any of the more conservative parties into a partnership.

The party, which like Labor favors negotiations toward a Palestinian state, had expected to have Labor as an ally in opposition.

"The Labor Party, may she rest in peace, has established the second Netanyahu government," said Kadima Knesset member Yoel Hasson. "This is a right-wing government with Labor as glossy wrapping that has no influence on the content."

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