Labor Chair Barak Refuses to Rule Out Coalition With Likud

Issue arises as Barak tries to prevent key party members from leaving Labor ahead of Feb. elections.

Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak has refused to promise MKs negotiating with Meretz about forming a new center-left party that Labor would not join a government headed by Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu after the February elections.

A senior Labor official told Haaretz Wednesday that the issue came up in talks conducted by Barak in the past two days aimed at preventing key Labor MKs such as Ami Ayalon, Ophir Pines-Paz and Michael Melchior from joining the new Meretz initiative.

After Barak's meetings with Ayalon and Pines-Paz on Tuesday night and Wednesday respectively, it appears both are likely to remain in Labor.

Barak confidants described both meetings as "relaxed and good" - Barak had initiated the meetings after learning that Ayalon and Pines-Paz were talking with Meretz chairman Haim Oron and considering leaving Labor. But the story appears slightly different from the other side.

In their talks with Barak, both men criticized Barak's behavior and the management of the party. Pines-Paz asked Barak to review party guidelines on the peace process and said he would be willing to be in the opposition and not join another party whose platform did not conform to Labor's.

Sunday is the deadline for applying for the Labor primary scheduled for early December. Ayalon and Pines-Paz will have to decide by then whether to stay in Labor or leave.

Meretz officials said Oron was offering to "weave" Labor-leavers into a joint list: Oron would head the new party's list of Knesset candidates, followed by an ex-Labor candidate and then a Meretz candidate, and so on.

In the past several days Oron has been speaking with Meretz MKs and other party members competing for high positions on the party's election list to gain support for the measure. Recent polls give Meretz five or six MKs, and Oron says this number could double if Labor MKs defect to the new party.