Labor Party chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will today face a dramatic political test, when he asks the 1,470 members of his party's central committee to approve a coalition deal he has hatched with Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu. The agreement between Labor and Netanyahu's Likud is likely to be finalized this morning, after the sides spent the night in last-minute negotiations.
In addition, Barak will ask his party to authorize him to determine which of the party's 13 Knesset members will be appointed to ministerial positions - a demand which is without precedent and which would require an amendment to the party's constitution. Should Barak get the approval he is seeking, the rift between opponents of the coalition deal and its supporters would deepen still further; seven of the party's MKs - more than half - oppose the agreement.
All the signs are that the vote will be close and no one in the party is willing to predict which way members of the central committee will vote.
Opponents of Barak's proposal to join the coalition yesterday launched a particularly vitriolic broadside against their party leader, accusing him of "trying to turn Labor into Yisrael Beiteinu" and of "acting as if he got 50 seats in the Knesset, rather than suffering an electoral whipping."
The internal battle between Barak and the seven MKs who oppose him - Shelly Yachimovich, Ophir Pines-Paz, Eitan Cabel, Daniel Ben Simon, Amir Peretz, Yuli Tamir and Avishay Braverman - was taken up a notch yesterday when the Labor rebels sent an unprecedented letter to Netanyahu and his foreign minister-designate, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, in which they declared that they will not be bound by the coalition agreement that Labor and Likud are working on, since Barak was acting without authority.
"This is the first time in the history of the Labor Party," they wrote, "that the chairman has set up a coalition negotiating team without a thorough and extensive discussion within the party and without getting the approval of any of the party's organs. It is a gross violation of the party's constitution." The rebels also warned Netanyahu of the consequences of Barak's actions. "You should know," they wrote, "that the negotiating team established by the 'Barak faction' within the Labor Party does not enjoy our backing or the backing of any authorized party official. It is unfortunate that the party chairman chose to manage party matters in this way. Given the circumstances, we must inform you that you cannot count on our support regarding any agreement that you may reach with Ehud Barak."
Barak spoke later in the day with several of the MKs who oppose his proposals, telling them, "there is no legal impediment against establishing a negotiation team, and I will be happy to brief the party MKs on its progress. It is our duty to hold a legitimate political debate - on what is right for the State of Israel, on what the citizens want and on what is good for the party - instead of writing fallacious letters," Barak was quoted as saying.
Former Israel Defense Forces chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon (Likud), meanwhile, afforded Netanyahu a small measure of satisfaction yesterday when he declared that, given current circumstances, personal and party differences should be set aside in favor of the national interest. Until a few days ago, Ya'alon was considered the leading candidate to serve as defense minister in Netanyahu's government - a position that would remain with Barak if Labor does, indeed, join the coalition.
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