Israel's defence minister faces test over coalition push

Ehud Barak, Israel's outgoing defence minister, faces a crucial test today in his attempt to have his Labor party join Israel's next government.

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TEL AVIV // Ehud Barak, Israel's outgoing defence minister, faces a crucial test today in his attempt to have his Labor party join Israel's next government. But analysts warned that the results could lead to the possible collapse of Mr Barak's once-dominant movement. The centre-left party holds an important internal vote today on whether to approve Mr Barak's push for it to become part of what is shaping up to be a right-wing governing coalition headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the designated next Israeli premier and leader of the hawkish Likud party.

Analysts said Mr Barak and Mr Netanyahu were going to become the main beneficiaries from a union of Labor and Likud. Mr Barak would get to keep his current post as defence minister and avoid risking becoming irrelevant in a parliamentary opposition that would likely be led by Tzipi Livni, the head of the bigger Kadima faction. Mr Netanyahu would be able to govern a larger coalition that would be less susceptible to political collapse. Furthermore, by adding Labor, which supports the creation of a Palestinian state, Mr Netanyahu would be in a better position to fend off international criticism about heading a government whose members mostly oppose a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr Netanyahu, who has been trying to form a coalition since February's national elections, has until April 3 to cobble together a government after asking Israel's president last week for a two-week extension. Yesterday he reached an agreement with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party following several weeks of intensive negotiations. The religious party will have the interior, housing and religious affairs ministries, as well as a minister without portfolio.

But an internal vote is threatening to cause a severe split within Labor's top ranks that some commentators predict may lead to the party's downfall. Seven of Labor's 13 parliamentary members oppose joining Mr Netanyahu's government, accusing Mr Barak of opportunistically attempting to keep the defence portfolio while subjecting his party to become a cover-up for a hardline coalition. They also charge Mr Barak with bearing responsibility for Labor losing one-third of its parliamentary seats in February's national elections and insist the party could only recuperate if it joins the opposition and gradually rebuilds its support base.

Commentators warned that any result of the vote - expected to be close - threatens Labor's survival. "If Barak wins, Labor will serve as the fig leaf for Netanyahu's government, finally withering away. If Barak loses, he might jump ship to join [Mr Netanyahu], alone or with a few others, while leaving the rest of Labor to rot under the long shadow cast by the much bigger Kadima," wrote Amir Mizroch in the right-leaning Israeli newspaper Jerusalem Post.

Mr Barak's efforts to join a Likud-led government are an about-face from his earlier position. He has himself announced before the elections that he would not aim to become defence minister should his party not obtain close to 20 parliamentary seats. Immediately following the ballot, he declared that Labor was headed for the opposition to rehabilitate itself. But last week, Mr Barak revealed his intention to join the new coalition, saying that Israel needs a broad government to counter the exacerbating effect of the global financial crisis on its economy as well as face the security threat that may emerge from Iran's nuclear ambitions.

In an effort to tilt the odds of the vote in his favour, Mr Barak on Sunday appointed a team to conduct speedy negotiations with Likud on a coalition pact that could be presented for approval at today's meeting. The pact is expected to call for Labor to occupy five governmental positions, which - aside from the defence ministry for Mr Barak - also include the industry, trade and labour ministry and the welfare and agricultural portfolios.

Israeli media reported that the agreement is also believed to include a commitment by Mr Netanyahu to continue peace talks with both the Palestinians and Syria. However, the accord is not expected to specifically call for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, an idea that is opposed by most of the right-wing parties that are due to form Mr Netanyahu's coalition. Mr Barak's attempt has also drawn criticism from outside his party. Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli premier known for having tense relations with his defence minister, was quoted by Israeli media yesterday as lashing out at Mr Barak for vying to join a government that doesn't back the two-state solution. He said: "Whoever goes into a government that doesn't include that in its basic policies could cause Israel to become isolated and history won't forgive him."

For Labor, which once dominated Israeli politics, the future remains uncertain. Analysts said Labor had not yet recovered from its most recent internal crisis in 2005, when Shimon Peres, a former Labor leader, jumped ship along with several other prominent party members to Kadima, a new movement formed that year by Ariel Sharon, the now-comatose former Israeli prime minister. For Mr Barak, the bid to remain defence minister is hardly surprising. Often called "Mr Security" by Israeli media, he is a former army chief and the country's most decorated soldier. Yet during his current term as defence minister, he has also been criticised for helping orchestrate Israel's recent onslaught against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, which did not halt the continued rockets fired from the enclave at southern Israel and failed to secure the release of an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas three years ago.