Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to convene the cabinet Wednesday to approve MK Avigdor Lieberman's appointment as minister for strategic threats, after the two finalized a deal on the entry of Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party into the coalition Tuesday.
Immediately after the cabinet vote, Olmert plans to bring the 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. Party Chairman Amir 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 members of Olmert's Kadima Party said they thought Lieberman had agreed to this 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 yesterday 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 yesterday 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.
Meanwhile, Lieberman said yesterday 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 for today or tomorrow, 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.
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