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Israel Labor Party opts to join coalition

Labor lends a moderate voice to a Benjamin Netanyahu Cabinet dominated by hard-liners. But the vote to join the government may lead to a split in the party.

March 25, 2009|Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Israel's Labor Party voted Tuesday to join the incoming government of Benjamin Netanyahu, lending a moderate voice to a coalition dominated by hard-liners and easing concerns of a head-on confrontation with Washington over Mideast peacemaking.

Chants of "Disgrace! Disgrace!" echoed through the convention hall after Defense Minister Ehud Barak pushed through the proposal despite angry opposition from party activists who feared Labor would give only a superficial gloss to a government little interested in moving toward peace.

Labor's move gives Netanyahu's coalition a majority of 66 in the 120-seat parliament.

Labor's decision, by a 680-507 vote, paves the way for a broader government than the narrow and hawkish one Netanyahu would otherwise have had to settle for, increasing his chances of gaining international acceptance.

Barak was set to remain defense minister, a key position in the new Cabinet that could allow Labor to promote peace efforts with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, the expected appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister could overshadow Barak's input. Lieberman is perceived by some as a racist because of his demands that Israel's minority Arabs take a loyalty oath or forfeit their citizenship.

The prime minister sets the tone for the government, and Netanyahu remains deeply skeptical about negotiations with the Palestinians. The last year of U.S.-backed talks has produced no discernible results, because the leadership of both sides appeared too weak to make the necessary concessions on vital issues such as borders, refugees and settlements.

Netanyahu says the Palestinians are not ready for statehood and suggests economic development instead. The Palestinians reject that and have received the backing of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She emphasized during a visit here this month that the Obama administration's goal is creation of a Palestinian state that would live in peace next to Israel.

Tuesday's contentious vote drove a wedge through Barak's Labor Party, opening the way for a possible split -- if not now, then in the future. At least six of Labor's 13 legislators were strongly opposed to joining Netanyahu's team, and some may decide to leave the party and remain in the opposition. That could force Netanyahu to bring in at least one more hard-line party to cement his majority.

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