Barak at Focus of Labor Debate on Bolting Gov't

Barak tells associates he does not believe he could sit in a government headed by Olmert.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak, a leading contender for the Labor Party leadership, told his associates Sunday that in light of the Winograd report on the Second Lebanon War, he does not believe he could sit in a government headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

If Barak announces this officially in the coming days, it could seriously impair Olmert's chances of survival. Hitherto, Olmert has been assuming that if Barak were to win the Labor leadership primary later this month, he would join Olmert's government as defense minister, which would both improve the government's public image and ensure that its coalition majority remains intact.

The discussion took on particular urgency on Monday, with a Knesset no-confidence vote slated for later in the day. Some MKs from the coalition indicated Sunday that they would vote against the government in the first no-confidence vote after the release of the harsh Winograd interim report on the government's performance during the Second Lebanon War.

Labor is expected to decide Monday against supporting the two no-confidence motions on the government's alleged failings that will come before the plenum later in the day, guaranteeing the government will survive them by a large margin.

Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich said she is contemplating voting against the government, adding that she had "no intention of voting in favor of Olmert's cabinet following the findings of the Winograd report." Other MKs, including senior figures from the coalition, implied they would abstain or deliberately fail to attend the vote.

Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz also pledged to "not support this government." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet cannot rely on the votes of MKs Avishay Braverman and Ami Ayalon either, as they are expected to decide on a joint stance before the vote. Both Ayalon and Braverman added that they needed to study the no-confidence motions before deciding which way to vote.

Labor's withdrawal from the government, however, would deprive it of a majority. The other leading contender for Labor's leadership, Ami Ayalon, announced last week that he would not sit in an Olmert-led government, and should Barak do the same, this would virtually guarantee Labor's departure within the month.

Over the last few days, Barak has consulted with ministers, MKs and external advisors in an effort to formulate a position in advance of next Sunday's meeting of Labor's Central Committee. This meeting is slated to decide whether Labor should withdraw from the government. His hesitancy stems from fear that Labor's withdrawal would force early elections, which would make his life difficult should he win the primary, as he is not ready for an immediate race against Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu.

Now, though he is slated to make a final decision only in the coming days, he has apparently concluded that joining Olmert's government would damage both him and his party.

On Sunday, Barak met with Labor Party Secretary-General Eitan Cabel, a long-time supporter of his who demonstratively resigned from the government over the Winograd report last week. Cabel said afterward that his impression was that Barak has decided against joining the government should he win the primary.

However, other Labor ministers who are considered part of Barak's camp, including Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Isaac Herzog and Shalom Simhon, believe the party should not make any decision on withdrawing from the government yet, lest this force early elections and bring Netanyahu to power. This view is shared by some of the ministers belonging to current party chairman Amir Peretz's camp, such as Yuli Tamir and Ghaleb Majadele.

Herzog and Tamir met Sunday and agreed to cooperate on this issue. Majadele, for his part, plans to submit a compromise proposal to the Central Committee under which no decision would be made until after the primary.

Cabel, in contrast, believes that Labor should not be frightened by early elections. Since Olmert's Kadima Party wants early elections as little as Labor does, he argues that a Labor withdrawal from the government would simply prompt Kadima to dump Olmert and pick a replacement from within the party, who would then form a new government without resorting to early elections.

The coalition was to face its first post-Winograd test Monday, in the form of two no-confidence motions prompted by the Winograd report. There is no chance of the government falling, but in a sign of its growing woes, several Labor MKs and two Kadima MKs have threatened not to support the government in the votes.