Labor Votes to Join Likud-led Coalition; Barak: I'm Not Chasing Ministerial Post

Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak succeeded yesterday in bringing his party into Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, despite bitter internal opposition.

The new government will probably be sworn in on Monday.

At yesterday's party convention, 680 delegates voted to back Barak and join the coalition, while 507 voted against.

However, several Labor Knesset members who opposed Barak's move could still vote against the new government on Monday.

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."

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."

Likud is set to meet today with National Union's negotiating team. The latter is waiting to hear what portfolio Netanyahu will offer the party now that the Agriculture Ministry will apparently be given to Labor's Shalom Simhon, but insists that whatever it is, it must include responsibility for settlement. Likud and National Union also have yet to agree on a stand toward a Palestinian state.

Yisrael Beiteinu has yet to respond officially to Labor's joining the coalition. Over the past week, however, party sources said the move would legitimize Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman's problematic appointment as foreign minister.

The convention empowered Barak, who will continue as defense minister in the new government, to appoint the party's ministers and deputy ministers in the new coalition as he sees fit. This means Barak's supporters will continue as ministers: Isaac Herzog will continue as social affairs minister, Shalom Simhon as agriculture minister and Matan Vilnai as deputy defense minister, while Benjamin Ben-Eliezer is expected to be appointed industry, trade and labor minister. Barak will also appoint a minister without portfolio and another deputy minister.

Netanyahu pulled Labor into his coalition at a particularly high cost in terms of ministerial posts, which could be a sore point with Netanyahu's fellow Likud members - who want ministerial posts for themselves. Yisrael Beiteinu is also concerned about the promised posts: Sources in that party said it is unreasonable that it, with 15 seats, should have the same number of ministers as Labor, with 13 - especially since half of Labor's MKs opposed joining the government and cannot be trusted to support it in the Knesset. However, one party source told Haaretz it would not take any steps to delay formation of the government.

The battle within Labor, which at one point had threatened to split the party, ended with one of the "rebels," MK Shelly Yachimovich, saying she "respected the outcome," though she was "sorry for its future implications and hoped that even in this situation, we can rebuild ourselves." Yachimovich also said she had not yet decided whether she would vote for the government.

Barak endured a barrage of boos from younger delegates in the audience, as well as criticism from opponents at the rostrum. Former minister Moshe Shahal called the decision "contempt for us all." MK Ophir Pines-Paz said Barak "had not received a mandate to throw the Labor Party onto the trash heap of history."

Barak responded sharply to critics of his loyal supporters: "I utterly reject the irrational attack on Shalom Simhon and Fuad [Ben-Eliezer]. No one here is clinging to their [ministerial] chairs. Most of Israel's citizens want to see us in the government."

Barak owes much of the success of his move to Ben-Eliezer and Simhon, as well as to Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, who backed the chairman energetically.

Meanwhile, MK Uri Ariel (National Union) charged that Labor would be a foreign element in Netanyahu's coalition. However, other National Union officials said they hoped Barak would act differently toward the settlers in this government than he had in the last government, and that he would reverse an almost complete freeze on construction in the territories.

Habayit Hayehudi, which welcomed Labor's entry into the coalition, is expected to receive the culture, science and sport portfolio for its leader, Daniel Hershkowitz.

Shas chairman Eli Yishai, whose party signed a coalition agreement with Likud only two days ago, also welcomed Labor's entry into the coalition.

Coalition talks between Likud and United Torah Judaism, in contrast, have run aground. "I'm glad that Bibi [Netanyahu] has a government and I'm sure he'll manage without us," commented UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman.