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Labor’s Role in Bibi’s Team

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 March 24, 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.

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 continue 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 had risked being comprised solely of right-wing and religious parties.

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.

Despite Netanyahu’s entreaties, 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.

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