January 18, 2011 / 10:04 AM / 9 years ago

Netanyahu rewards Barak with Israel cabinet seats

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu richly rewarded Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday for leaving his Labour Party, giving four cabinet posts to his five-member breakaway faction.

On Monday, Barak and four allies bolted the center-left Labour party, Israel’s dominant political force for generations but lately reduced to a junior coalition member in Netanyahu’s right-wing government.

The defection removed the risk that a left-wing rival could have replaced Barak as Labour leader and pulled the whole party out of the ruling coalition, potentially bringing down the government over the freeze in peace talks with the Palestinians.

Labour’s remaining eight-member faction in parliament responded to Barak’s defection on Monday by pulling its three cabinet members out of the government. With Barak’s allies, Netanyahu still controls 66 seats in the 120-member parliament, a comfortable governing majority.

Under Tuesday’s deal, Barak kept his own job and another defector already in the cabinet kept a seat. Netanyahu gave two of Labour’s vacated seats to fellow defectors in Barak’s new faction, known as Atzmaut, or Independence. The fifth defector was also given a job, to chair a parliamentary committee.

“We have an agreement,” a spokeswoman for Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party said in a text message to reporters.

The deal means Barak now controls only one fewer seat in the cabinet than Labour before the split, despite commanding a parliamentary faction that is less than half as big.

Labour’s split plunged the once-dominant party into disarray.

Labour ruled Israel from its foundation in 1948 until 1977. But support for the historically dominant party eroded in the past decade with the failure of the peace process pioneered in the 1990s under Labour leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

Barak served as Labour’s last prime minister from 1999-2001, but was voted out after failing to finalize a peace deal with the Palestinians. His decision to join Netanyahu’s governing coalition in 2009 alienated many core Labour supporters.

Newspaper commentators mostly lambasted Barak. Ari Shavit in the Haaretz daily described his move as an “ugly act” and Maariv’s Ofer Shelah said Barak was a “man of destruction” who “smashed the remnants of trust in the peace process and destroyed the Labour party.”

Editing by Peter Graff

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