Netanyahu enlists Labor Party into Israeli coalition

JERUSALEM Tue Mar 24, 2009 2:41pm EDT

1 of 2. Israel's Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Defense Minister Ehud Barak before their meeting in Jerusalem, February 23, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu enlisted Ehud Barak's Labor party on Tuesday into a political partnership that could help Israel's next government avoid friction with Washington on Middle East peace.

Under the coalition deal with Barak, an administration led by Netanyahu's right-wing Likud would respect all of Israel's international agreements, a Labor Party negotiator said -- a formula that includes accords envisaging Palestinian statehood.

Barak, an architect of Israel's recent Gaza offensive, is to retain his post as defense minister. Labor's Central Committee voted its approval of the coalition deal after a stormy debate.

Some 57 percent of nearly 1,200 delegates backed their leader's call to join Netanyahu's cabinet, senior party official Eitan Cabel told the assembly of the often fractious party.

"The Central Committee has decided, and done so clearly," Cabel said. "We'll do all we can to go in united."

"I am not afraid of Bibi Netanyahu," Barak, using his new partner's nickname, told the assembly in a shaky, emotion-filled voice during the earlier debate.

"I will not be anyone's fig leaf," he said, dismissing talk that Labor would have little say on policy. "We will be a counterweight that will ensure we do not have a narrow right-wing government."

Netanyahu has shied away from declaring support for the two-state solution that is at the heart of U.S. peace efforts.

Indirect acceptance of that goal and formation of a broad government that includes Labor, the moving force behind interim peace deals with the Palestinians in the 1990s, might keep him off a possible collision course with President Barack Obama.

The Labor-Likud pact, read out by negotiator Shalom Simchon at the Central Committee session, appeared to suggest a shift in focus in Israel's approach to peacemaking.

It made no specific mention of talks with the Palestinians, saying only a Netanyahu-led government would pursue "a regional agreement for peace and cooperation in the Middle East."

Netanyahu has said his government would negotiate with the Palestinians but wanted the currently stalled talks to focus on shoring up their economy rather than on territorial issues that have stymied past discussions, an approach Palestinians reject.

With center-left Labor in his corner, Netanyahu would have a ruling majority of 66 seats in the 120-member parliament, a margin he could still widen before an April 3 deadline to form a government following Israel's February 10 election.

COMMITMENT TO ROAD MAP

According to the coalition accord, "Israel is committed to all the diplomatic and international agreements that Israeli governments have signed throughout the years."

Labor cabinet minister Isaac Herzog said that represented a commitment to the Annapolis declaration and a U.S.-backed peace "road map" charting a path to Palestinian statehood.

At Annapolis in 2007, Israel agreed to negotiate a peace treaty to further "the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security."

The Likud-Labor deal also included a pledge to "enforce the law" with regard to Jewish settlement outposts built in the occupied West Bank without government approval.

The outgoing, centrist-led Israeli government, which includes Labor, has largely ignored its promise to Washington to evacuate dozens of unauthorized outposts. It also continued to expand Jewish settlements in violation of the road map.

On Monday, Netanyahu sealed a coalition deal with the Orthodox Jewish Shas party, a perennial member of coalitions of right and left down the years. He had already signed up the Yisrael Beitenu party led by ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman.

But while enlisting those partners, Netanyahu made clear he preferred a broad-based coalition.

A sharp turn to the right within Israel's government could raise international concern, already heightened by Netanyahu's promise to appoint Lieberman as foreign minister.

Netanyahu could significantly widen his parliamentary majority if the centrist Kadima party, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, changes its mind about going into opposition.

Netanyahu has not met her demand for a specific commitment to Palestinian statehood and a rotation agreement that would make her prime minister for part of the next government's term.

Labor, the dominant force in Israeli politics in and after the early days of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, won only 13 seats in last month's election, against 27 for Likud, 28 for Kadima, 15 for Yisrael Beitenu and 11 for Shas.

As prime minister from 1999 to 2001 Barak, a highly decorated former general, tried but failed to build on peace deals secured by Labor's Yitzhak Rabin before he was assassinated in 1995.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr, editing by Alastair Macdonald)

(For blogs and links on Israeli politics and other Israeli and Palestinian news, go to blogs.reuters.com/axismundi )

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