Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defence Minister, last night managed to persuade his deeply divided Labour Party to enter a coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu in a move likely to send shock waves through the Israeli left.
Mr Barak won the day by a decisive if relatively narrow margin of 680 votes to 507 at an emotional meeting of Labour’s central committee after earlier sewing up a draft coalition agreement with Mr Netanyahu, leader of the biggest party on the right.
The move was widely depicted in Israel as assisting Mr Netanyahu in what he is said to regard as the crucial task of minimising the friction with Washington which helped lead to the downfall of the narrow right-wing government he led from 1996 to 1999.
But it also casts further doubt on a future role as the main centre-left party for Labour, which dominated much of Israel’s history since the beginning of the state 60 years ago but slumped to fourth place in this February’s election.
In an especially anguished speech from the losing side in yesterday’s debate, Ophir Pines-Paz, a prominent Knesset member on Labour’s left, referred to three previous Labour prime ministers declaring: “(Yitzhak) Rabin, Golda (Meir) and (Moshe) Sharett are turning over in their graves.
“We were given a chance to continue their path. Mr Barak did not get a mandate for throwing Labour on the scrapheap of history.”
But Mr Barak strongly commended to delegates the deal under which Mr Netanyahu, who has hitherto never declared himself in favour of a Palestinian state, has agreed to work for regional peace and to honour previous “diplomatic and international” agreements reached by Israel.
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s current Foreign Minister, has so far consistently rejected Mr Netanyahu’s overtures aimed at bringing her Kadima Party into his coalition on the grounds of his refusal to commit himself to the two state solution. But Labour proponents of the deal will argue that the new formula commits Mr Netanyahu to the 16-year-old Oslo accords which he opposed during the 1990s, and which envisage “final status” negotiations with the Palestinians.
In what was arguably the most testing and dramatic internal party speech of his career, Mr Barak moved to reassure delegates that he would be the leading partner in the new coalition. “I am not afraid of Bibi Netanyahu,” he declared. “I will not be anyone’s fig leaf — we will be a counter-weight that will ensure we do not have a narrow right-wing government.”
Mr Barak rejected the argument of his opponents that Labour should now rebuild itself in opposition, pointing out that Kadima would in such circumstances be the leading party outside the government.
The deal reached between Mr Barak and Mr Netanyahu also provides for hundreds of millions of shekels in retraining and manpower programmes designed to protect workers against the world recession. It was strongly promoted by a key Labour Party figure, Ofer Eini, the chairman of the Histradrut, Israel’s TUC, who declared after yesterday's meeting in Tel Aviv: “I’m happy that party delegates have decided to enter the government.”