Text size

Israeli Arab members of the Labor Party have threatened to leave the faction if it approves the inclusion of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu in the coalition during a cabinet vote on the issue Wednesday.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz Tuesday evening for what was dubbed a decisive meeting on Labor's future in the government, in the wake of Olmert's decision to invite Yisrael Beiteinu into the government.

Peretz was expected to ask for clarifications on whether or not Lieberman's right-wing party, which signed a deal with Kadima on Monday, is committed to the original coalition guidelines.

The Labor chairman has met in the last few days with some of the more prominent Arab members of the party in an effort to gauge the sector's overall sentiments with regard to Lieberman's expected entry into the government. Most of the Arab members have agreed that if the party's central committee agrees to sit in government with Lieberman, it would mark the end of the Arab sector's participation in the faction.

"If someone rejects the root of our existence and thinks we have no place in Israel, we won't be able to fulfill his plan. It's not a matter of love or hate. He wants a Jewish state without Arabs, after all," said MK Raleb Mahjadala, Labor's secretary for the Arab sector.

MK Nadia Hilu said Lieberman's entry into government has awakened a storm within the Arab membership of the Labor Party. "We will work against his inclusion. If Labor remains in the coalition, we'll lose our essence - the image of the party, its ideology and its platform. The party is fading and dissolving," she added.

If Lieberman is voted into the coalition, the 111 Arab delegates of the 2600-member Labor Central Committee will meet Saturday to decide whether to quit the party.

Labor split on Lieberman entry into coalitionOlmert plans to convene the cabinet Wednesday to approve MK Avigdor Lieberman's appointment as minister dealing with strategic threats.

Immediately after the cabinet vote, Olmert plans to bring Lieberman's appointment and the coalition agreement to the Knesset for approval. By moving speedily, he hopes to prevent an outbreak of infighting in the Labor Party that could pressure Labor's Central Committee into ordering the party to quit the coalition.

The committee is due to convene early next week to decide on the issue, and the party's MKs are split: One faction, led by ministers Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Shalom Simhon and Isaac Herzog, strongly supports staying in the government, while another, led by Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, party Secretary-General Eitan Cabel and several prominent MKs, is equally strongly opposed. Peretz, though nominally siding with Pines-Paz's faction, has not been actively involved in the fight.

Should the Knesset vote on the Yisrael Beiteinu deal this week, about half of the Labor faction is expected to vote against.

Under the deal, Lieberman will become minister for strategic threats, deputy prime minister and a member of the security cabinet. The party will not receive any other ministries, even though its 11 Knesset seats would normally entitle it to three or four portfolios. In exchange, Lieberman pledged that his party would support the government until the end of its term.

Senior Kadima members said they thought Lieberman had agreed to the deal because he expects Labor to quit the coalition within a matter of months, after which Yisrael Beiteinu will be able to help itself to the vacant ministries.

The rapid conclusion of the deal caught Labor unprepared, but both camps quickly began gearing up for battle. Ben-Eliezer sent a letter to the Central Committee on Wednesday in which he warned that "the Israeli public will not forgive any party that is responsible for dragging it to new elections and wasting precious resources and time," and he and Simhon have begun actively lobbying Central Committee members to vote against quitting the government. Pines-Paz, Cabel and members of their camp have similarly begun lobbying their supporters in the Central Committee, and Pines-Paz, who on Wednesday termed Lieberman's appointment as minister for strategic threats "a joke," pledged to do everything in his power to ensure that Labor does not remain in the coalition once Lieberman joins.

However, the Central Committee is widely expected to decide that the party should stay. One sign of how the wind is blowing is the fact that the party's largest constituency, the Kibbutz Movement, is poised to pass a resolution urging the party not to leave the government as long as government guidelines do not change - which Olmert has repeatedly pledged that they will not. Ze'ev Shor, the secretary-general of the Kibbutz Movement, supports this resolution, as does MK Orit Noked, the movement's representative in the Labor faction.

Lieberman says joining coalition to 'help cope with Iranian threat'Meanwhile, Lieberman said Wednesday that he decided to join the government "in order to help it cope with Israel's number one problem, which is the Iranian threat. I am not certain that we will succeed in having an influence, but if we succeed in having an influence of even one percent, that will be enough."

Lieberman, who stressed that all his strategic advisors had recommended that he not join the government, also criticized the right. "For 30 years, the right has been in power, but despite this, we haven't succeeded in preventing the withdrawals that have taken place," he said. "Perhaps we need to change the strategy, because it is incorrect. I hope that members of the rightist factions will also change direction."

Unsurprisingly, the Olmert-Lieberman deal provoked harsh criticism from both right and left.

"Yisrael Beiteinu has abandoned its principles and is joining a leftist government" charged MK Uri Ariel, chairman of the National Union-National Religious Party faction. "It is irresponsible to rescue a government in which neither the public, the Israel Defense Forces nor its soldiers have confidence."

Meretz-Yachad Chairman Yossi Beilin said Lieberman's entry into the government exposed Kadima as a party that won public support by deceiving the voters.

Hadash Chairman Mohammed Barakeh termed Lieberman's entry "a move against democracy, and one that grants legitimacy to the racist discourse that is spreading among the extreme right." He added that the move is a sign of Olmert's distress, and that should Labor nevertheless remain in the government, it would be declaring bankruptcy.

Arab MKs also asked Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik not to schedule the vote on Yisrael Beiteinu's entry into the coalition either Wednesday or Thursday, since the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr falls then, and traditionally, the Knesset has avoided holding votes on controversial issues during Muslim holidays. Itzik said last night that she has not yet decided whether to accede to this request.