Israel's Labor Party votes to join Likud coalition
TEL AVIV, Israel -- After a highly emotional debate, Israel's moderate Labor Party voted Monday to join with hard-line Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon to form a unity government.
That decision clears the way for Sharon to form his government, which he could do as early as next week. Once he does, acting Prime Minister Ehud Barak will resign.
The unity government's priorities have not yet been determined. Its first goal may be to enhance a sense of security that many Israelis have lost during recent conflicts with Palestinians.
"I believe that Sharon, like myself, has to face realities, not just declarations. And we have to try together to find a way our two peoples will be able to live together peacefully," said Labor patriarch Shimon Peres, who is slated to serve as Sharon's foreign minister.
The Labor Party expects to get eight of the 28 ministerial positions in Sharon's Cabinet, meaning it will probably not be able to shape the government agenda.
And in a stinging blow to Labor leadership Monday, the rank and file in the party's Central Committee voted that it should, and would, have the right to decide who will be the party ministers in the Sharon government.
Many did not vote
Opponents had argued that Labor would be just a figurehead for a government dominated by the hard-line right, both from Sharon's Likud party and other right-wing parties that also will be a part of the government.
The Labor committee voted by a 2-1 margin in favor of becoming part of the government, but fewer than half of the delegates took part in the secret balloting.
Before the vote, Peres argued that it is imperative for the Labor Party to join the government both to restrain the hard-line policies of Sharon and to push peace proposals with the Palestinians.
"I think it was the right move, and we have to continue going in the same direction," Peres said after the vote. He said Sharon's Likud party has pledged that all signed agreements with the Palestinians will be respected.
Equally passionate, however, was outgoing Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami , who said joining the coalition would destroy the Labor Party.
"You will turn it into the ... party nobody wants, a party of which all who see it will say, 'The time has indeed come for it to pass from the world,'" Ben-Ami said to thundering applause.
Peres to head party, for now
Labor's outgoing Prime Minister Barak, defeated by Sharon in elections earlier this month, last week said he would not accept a position in Sharon's Cabinet. He said he would fulfill his election night pledge to "step away" from politics -- resigning from both the Knesset and as chairman of the Labor Party.
Barak had earlier reversed his election night stance and agreed to serve as defense minister in a Sharon government, but that move sparked a revolt within the Labor Party and he was forced to stand aside.
The Labor committee had also been expected to vote on the nomination of elder statesman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Peres to replace Barak as party chairman, but that decision was delayed when some party officials complained that others did not have enough time to mount a challenge for the post.
The vote would have been for temporary leadership of the party; the 78-year-old Peres, who led Labor for 20 years until replaced by Barak in the mid-1990s, said he had no interest in returning to the job permanently.
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