Behind the Headlines: Labor Move on Choosing Ministers Threatens Prospects for Unity Gov’t

It’s not clear if the Labor Party’s decision to join a unity government will turn out to be a blessing or a curse for Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon.

Most observers hailed Labor’s decision Monday as a sign that Israel’s recent political instability could be moving toward resolution. But a procedural motion passed at the same meeting threatens to throw a wrench into Sharon’s plans.

Sharon has promised Labor eight portfolios in his government, including two of the heavyweight jobs, foreign affairs and defense.

On Monday, however, Labor’s Central Committee voted that it will decide who will fill which position — and any Labor politician is eligible — creating the possibility that Sharon may find Labor’s picks unacceptable.

The 1,700-person Central Committee was scheduled to meet again Thursday to choose the roster of members for Labor’s Cabinet positions.

Shimon Peres, who spearheaded the effort to steer Labor toward a unity government and has been angling for the foreign affairs portfolio, preferred that senior party members draw up their own list.

But Peres’ motion was voted down at Monday’s meeting.

This has prompted speculation that the vote could turn into a settling of scores within the embattled party, which has been rent with infighting since Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s overwhelming election loss to Sharon on Feb. 6.

Sources close to Sharon said the prime minister-elect does not want to meddle in Labor affairs, but he will not necessarily accept Labor’s dictates for important Cabinet posts, especially defense.

“We hope the Labor Party will choose people who are suited to the positions and will take into account that these individuals will have to serve in the government and in accordance with its positions and purposes,” Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a senior coalition negotiator for Sharon, told Israel Radio.

Olmert suggested an unworkable scenario in which Labor might propose that Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami — who negotiated the far-reaching concessions Barak presented to the Palestinians — continue in his post under Sharon.

On Tuesday morning, senior Labor members met at Peres’ office to discuss amending the Central Committee decision so that they can choose the party’s Cabinet members. The meeting ended without resolution.

Sharon has until the end of March to present a government.

Should the unity effort fail, he can form a narrow coalition with right-wing and religious factions.

Indeed, he resumed negotiations with them on Tuesday as the implications of the Labor vote on the Cabinet positions became clear.

But Sharon’s other potential partners also are grumbling over the distribution of Cabinet posts and parliamentary committee appointments.

The National Religious Party said Tuesday it wants the education portfolio. But the Likud covets the post itself.

A tug-of-war also has erupted over the chairmanship of the Knesset’s influential law committee. Avigdor Lieberman said his right-wing faction may not join Sharon’s coalition if it does not receive the chairmanship.

The post initially was promised to Lieberman’s faction, but he learned this week that Likud and Labor have agreed to rotate the chairmanship between themselves.

Fervently Orthodox parties such as Shas and United torah Judaism also have joined the fray, demanding the parliamentary post for themselves.

One reason for Lieberman’s insistence is the fact that the law committee must vet legislation to repeal the direct election of the prime minister, a system that has benefited Lieberman’s political patron, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This week, the committee approved 14 clauses to legislation that would cancel the direct election system.

Critics blame the system, which enables voters to cast separate ballots for prime minister and political parties, for strengthening smaller parties and creating political paralysis in the Parliament.

First implemented in 1996, when the telegenic Netanyahu defeated Peres in a stunning upset, opposition to the system has grown in recent years.

The bill to repeal the direct election has already won preliminary approval in the Knesset, and reports said the legislation could be presented as early as next week for second and final readings in the full Knesset.

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