The Labor Party Central Committee voted on Tuesday in favor of joining Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, despite bitter internal opposition.
Immediately after the convention, Netanyahu, who had worked secretly with Barak to bring Labor into the coalition, called Barak to congratulate him on the "significant achievement."
"A unity government will bring stability, and that is the right thing for the country," the Likud chairman said. "The big winners are Israel's citizens."
Netanyahu reached the preliminary agreement with Barak early Tuesday. Labor Party activists gathered later in the afternoon to vote on the deal, which calls on the government to pursue peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Labor Chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak drafted the deal with Netanyahu. But half of the party's lawmakers objected to teaming up with the Likud leader due to his long-standing opposition to peace efforts.
Kadima moved equally quickly to decry Labor's move, saying that Labor's entry into a Likud-led coalition signified ideological bankruptcy. MK Yohanan Plesner said Labor had "signed its own death warrant."
680 of Labor Party central committee members voted in favor of joining the coalition, while 570 voted against. The voter turnout stood at 78 percent of the committee members.
"I'm happy that party delegates have decided to enter the government," Ofer Eini, head of the Histadrut labor union and a senior Labor Party operative, told Israel's Army Radio.
But others chanted slogans like "Disgrace" following the announcement.
Labor's 13 seats in the parliament would give Netanyahu a majority of 66 in the 120-seat house. But there is a possibility that the party could split as a result of the vote, and some members might choose to remain in the opposition.
"I think that in terms of principles it will be hard for us to work together, and I assume the government and Benjamin Netanyahu aren't deluding themselves that they're going to get our support," lawmaker Amir Peretz, who opposed joining the government, told Channel 1 after the vote.
Ahead of the vote, Barak took the stand and in an impassioned speech said "we are responsible for the Labor Party, but we also have a responsibility to the state of Israel, to peace, to security. We don't have a back-up country, Yitzhak Rabin said that, and it is still true."
"Labor voters want to see us in the government, they want to see us there because we don't have a spare country," Barak added.
Addressing the opposition among some of his fellow party members to his move to join the coalition, and consequent criticism of him and his supporters, the Labor chairman went on to say that "there is no one here that is doing nothing more than holding on to a chair, and there's also no one here who epitomizes nothing but pure ideology - we're all friends. I reject with all my might the unfair and ludicrous attacks against [Labor MK] Shalom Simhon, against [Labor MK] Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and against me... Anyone who thinks that it is wiser to build the Labor Party as a fifth wheel in the opposition and not as a counter-force to the right-wing elements in the government doesn't know what he's talking about."
"I am not afraid of Benjamin Netanyahu. I won't serve as a fig leaf to anyone, and I won't be anyone's dead weight. We will be the counter-force that will prevent the formation of a narrow right-wing government, and ensure the establishment of a real government that will take care of the Israeli people," Barak continued.
The Labor leader rejected claims that he was motivated by selfish interests, saying that his only priority is the welfare of the country. "I am not chasing after any position," he said, "and I've manned almost all the positions, I was prime minister, defense minister, chief of staff, GOC and commander of the elite forces unit Syeret Matkal. I don't need any more positions. Anyone who thinks that I am concerned with personal survival, I urge him to listen to the criticism hurled at us and understand the price one pays when going against the grain, against the trend, toward what is truly right for Israel."
Faction whip Eitan Cabel, one of the vocal opposition to Barak's move, warned that the party was losing its way. "What killed us over the last decade is the fact that we lost faith in our path."
"We have turned into the [far right-wing party] National Union of the secular sector. We always affect change from within, and slowly we are dying," Cabel continued, adding that "those who support the coalition deal with Likud are looking to crush their home."
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