(JTA) — Depending on one’s interpretation, Labor’s decision to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition grants Israel’s incoming government either a kosher seal of approval or a fig leaf to disguise a right-wing agenda.
Either way, Labor’s move will make Netanyahu Israel’s next prime minister.
After a contentious meeting of the Labor Central Committee on Tuesday, members voted 680-507 to join the coalition, which already includes the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas parties. The vote provides Netanyahu the Knesset majority he needs to form a new government.
Labor’s decision has important implications for the country and the party.
Arguing in favor of joining the government, Labor leader Ehud Barak told party members that Labor’s participation in the coalition was necessary to counteract right-wing forces, ensure that Israel remains committed to the peace process and help the country face uniquely grave threats from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
“We won’t be anyone’s fig leaf or anyone’s third wheel," Barak told the Central Committee. "We will act as an opposing force that will ensure there will not be a narrow right-wing government, but a real government that looks after the State of Israel.”
In exchange for Labor joining the coalition, Netanyahu agreed to commit the government to all agreements signed by previous Israeli governments, the pursuit of regional peace and enforcement of the law when it comes to illegal Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank. The deal also allows Barak to stay on as defense minister and makes him a full partner in the diplomatic process.
For Barak — and perhaps for many of Israel’s international partners — the Netanyahu-led government is now palatable.
For Netanyahu, the partnership with Labor, historically a center-left party, burnishes the image of an incoming government that until Tuesday risked being comprised solely of right-wing and religious parties. While such a government would have been a welcome change in some corners of Israel, it likely would have been ill received by Israel’s allies overseas.
Some European officials already had expressed public misgivings about Netanyahu’s coalition, especially the prominence of controversial Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, who was promised the portfolio of foreign minister. While the Obama administration was careful publicly to maintain a neutral stance on the composition of Israel’s government, Israeli observers have predicted that a right-wing coalition would be on a collision course with Washington.
Netanyahu himself expressed a preference for avoiding a narrow coalition even before the Feb. 10 vote, which saw significant gains for Israel’s right wing. All along the Likud leader said he’d like to see a national unity government comprised of his party, Labor and the current ruling party, Kadima — and led by him. Like Barak, Netanyahu says the seriousness of the threats Israel is facing mandates a strong, stable government.
Critics, including some in Labor who spoke out before the committee vote Tuesday, say what Netanyahu really seeks is diplomatic cover to pursue a right-wing agenda.
"We would be entering this government as a third wheel, as a wagging tail, not more than that," Labor Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich said before Tuesday’s vote. "There is no shame in sitting in the opposition. On the contrary, it’s an honor."
Following Tuesday’s vote, the "honor" appeared to be reserved for Kadima. Despite Netanyahu’s entreaties, the party has refused to join the coalition. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni said she would not join the new government unless Netanyahu committed to the pursuit of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and agreed to a rotating premiership that would make her prime minister for two years.
By staying in the opposition Livni — whose party captured 28 seats in the Feb. 10 vote, one more than Likud — believes she will be able to solidify Kadima’s position as an alternative to the Likud-led government.
Livni is betting that Netanyahu will run into trouble — with allies abroad, if he pursues a right-wing agenda, or within his own government, if he follows policies that anger his right-wing partners. That, she figures, would set the stage for Kadima to lead the next government.
Livni’s critics say she is putting party before country at a time when Israel can ill afford an unstable government. Iran is pushing forward with its nuclear program, Hezbollah in Lebanon now has missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and Hamas in Gaza continues to fire rockets deeper and deeper into Israeli territory.
With Barak, the opposite is true. He can claim he is putting country before party by helping Israel’s government deal with these threats and mitigating any right-wing tendencies, but the upshot may be the collapse of the Labor Party.
Labor and its predecessor, Mapai, dominated Israeli politics for the country’s first three decades, leading every government from 1948 to 1977. Though its representation in the Knesset suffered somewhat in ensuing elections, Labor remained the voice of the center-left until 2005, when Ariel Sharon broke away from Likud to form the centrist Kadima Party.
Kadima’s establishment pulled supporters from Labor, and in last month’s national election Labor fell to an all-time low of fourth place, capturing just 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
While Labor’s decision to join Netanyahu’s coalition gives Barak a personal boost — keeping him in the important post of defense minister — it erodes Labor’s place in Israel’s political spectrum as the party of the center-left.
Kadima arguably can now claim that mantle. If Netanyahu succeeds, Likud will gain rather than Labor. And if Netanyahu fails, Kadima stands to gain, not Labor.