Netanyahu pact splits Likud

By Anshel Pfeffer, March 26, 2009
It’s a deal: Defence Minister Ehud Barak (left) and Bibi Netanyahu

It’s a deal: Defence Minister Ehud Barak (left) and Bibi Netanyahu

The only obstacle still standing in the way of Binyamin Netanyahu forming a government next week is a possible revolt within his own party.

Likud members are angry with Mr Netanyahu for allocating most of the senior cabinet positions to the other parties in his coalition. “We are going to give him a rough ride when he presents the coalition agreements to the Likud Central Committee next week,” said one disgruntled MK. “Netanyahu has given everything away to the coalition partners and Likud, the ruling party, has to make do with leftovers.”

Despite the grumblings, senior Likud activists predicted that the party chairman will rule the day. He received crucial backing from the former IDF chief of staff and new Likud MK Moshe Ya’alon, who originally was seen as a leading candidate for the post of defence minister.

“We have to do what is best for the nation’s interests,” said Mr Ya’alon, in support of the deal whereby Ehud Barak will retain his current position in return for Labour’s participation in the coalition.

On Tuesday evening, the Labour Party convention voted to accept the coalition agreement reached by its leader, Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Despite having only 13 seats in the new Knesset, Labour has been offered posts for five ministers, two deputy ministers, the chair of the influential Knesset foreign and defence committee and a significant say in economic and diplomatic matters.

The convention voted 680-507 to accept the deal, though a majority of its Knesset members voted against. In the aftermath of the vote, Mr Barak’s opponents within the party were split over their next steps. Out of the seven MKs who spoke against the agreement, three have already announced that they will respect the decision. The rest have yet to say whether they will vote to approve the new government when it is brought to the Knesset.

Mr Netanyahu, has now secured coalition agreements with four parties: Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Labour and the National Religious Party, which brings, together with Likud, a total of 69 Knesset members. United Torah Judaism is also expected to join his coalition, but the ultra-right National Union, which has been holding talks with Likud, is now unlikely to enter the coalition, following Mr Netanyahu’s pledge to Labour that he will crack down on settler outposts.

Following the coalition agreements, Likud has retained only a small handful of senior cabinet portfolios, including the treasury and education ministry. Mr Netanyahu will have to accommodate the ambitions of a long list of cabinet hopefuls. One of the ideas he is now playing with is promising disappointed ministers that they will be compensated in a future reshuffle.

Though they have been political rivals for the Past 15 years, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak have always got along well on a personal level. Mr Netanyahu was a young officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal in the early 1970s, when Mr Barak commanded the unit.

Over the Past two years, Mr Barak as defence minister, invited Mr Netanyahu to his office for regular briefings and the Likud leader has made no secret of his preference for keeping Mr Barak in post.

Likud and Labour are certainly awkward bedfellows, but the two leaders implicitly understand each other. Over recent weeks, Labour members feared that had the party voted against the coalition agreement, Mr Barak would have defected and joined Mr Netanyahu’s government on his own.

Last updated: 5:13pm, March 26 2009