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Israel's Barak Names Cabinet--After One Key Rejection

July 06, 1999|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEL AVIV — Ehud Barak will launch a new era of Middle East peacemaking when he is sworn in today as prime minister of Israel, but he first had to confront a mini-mutiny by members of his own party.

On Monday, Barak's Labor Party overwhelmingly rejected his candidate for the crucial post of speaker of the Knesset, or parliament, dealing the incoming prime minister an embarrassing political blow.

Demanding absolute loyalty and discipline, Barak, who won in a landslide May 17 election, finally finished assembling his government Monday by filling the last open Cabinet positions. He put together a seven-party ruling coalition holding 75 of 120 Knesset seats, a clear majority.

But he also managed to alienate key veterans of his own party protesting his heavy-handed style. They rebelled Monday at a session of the party's central committee in Tel Aviv.

Barak's controversial nomination of a politically inexperienced--and easily malleable--legislator as Knesset speaker was voted down in quick order.

Instead, party members chose Avraham Burg, a longtime Labor activist who has clashed publicly with Barak in the past. Burg almost certainly will be elected speaker when the Knesset convenes today.

Barak did attempt to recover from the defeat. Speaking to the central committee Monday night, he praised the "internal democracy" of his party and vowed to fulfill a campaign platform of peace and security.

"Millions of eyes in Israel and all around the world are looking at us now, waiting for us to turn our promises into reality," he told the assembled party members. "Our main mission is to strengthen Israel's security by ending the 100-year-old" Arab-Israeli conflict.

Having sent Barak a message with the defeat of second-term legislator Shalom Simhon, his Knesset nominee, the central committee approved the remaining slate of Cabinet appointments.

The mutiny was a signal to Barak that he will have to pay more attention to the way he treats party stalwarts, Israeli analysts said. Many here remember how departing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the early days of his administration, so alienated senior members of his Likud Party that many defected to other factions, where they helped usher in Netanyahu's resounding electoral defeat.

Barak had come under attack for what was seen as his dismissive treatment of the A-list veterans of his party. As he doled out positions in his government, he left Labor leaders to the last, summoning them one by one to his office for a brief audience and allowing them to twist in the wind while he reached his final decisions.

Some of the more disgruntled participants said they felt like dogs vying for table scraps.

The way he granted these appointments, and the appointments themselves, spoke volumes about Barak's management style and personality. He clearly intends to retain all the important levers of power for himself, and as a former head of the army, he places a high value on loyalty and discipline.

The government-building process of the last days and weeks also underscored the declining importance of party in Israel and the growing weight of the premier. Until recently, Israel had a parliamentary system where two large parties dominated everything. Now the powers of the prime minister, chosen by direct election since 1996, more closely resemble those of a president in a presidential system.

Burg, the former head of the Jewish Agency, and Uzi Baram--two longtime Labor leaders who rank among the most popular members of the party--were denied Cabinet posts. Both have spoken out against Barak; Baram attacked him as a dictator when it came to running the party machinery.

Another senior leader, Shlomo Ben-Ami, who received the highest vote of all Labor politicians in primary elections earlier this year, was forced to accept the relatively uninfluential post of internal security minister. Yossi Beilen, an architect of the landmark Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, had expected a plum assignment but will have to settle for the Justice Ministry. Former prime minister and Nobel laureate Shimon Peres was forced to grudgingly accept a job as head of a new, ill-defined regional development ministry.

In contrast, the important post of foreign minister went to David Levy, who only recently joined Barak's party and who has served as foreign minister with little distinction in other governments. Barak will retain the other key post, that of defense minister.

Barak wants to avoid the cutthroat dissension and second-guessing that eventually worked to bring down the Netanyahu government. This would in turn allow him to push through his agenda, which will include important steps aimed at reviving peace talks with the Palestinians and Syria.

But Israeli commentators accused Barak of going too far by assembling a Cabinet of yes-men and clones.

"No matter how you look at it, Barak is frying the veterans in his party like sardines in a hot pan," analyst Hemi Shalev noted in Monday's Maariv newspaper. "He has no intention of surrounding himself with this excellent team [of veterans] that might have their own agenda."

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