Leaders of the Labor Party have followed the zig-zagging
example of their former prime minister, Ehud Barak, and
despite warnings that they were selling their souls for a
scrap of power, in a stormy and at times near-violent
session on Monday night the Labor Party Central Committee
agreed to join a unity government led by Likud's Ariel
Sharon. The Committee will select its ministers on
This decision has given Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon
the chance to form a broad coalition and possibly secure a
respite from the political instability that has afflicted
most recent governments.
The coalition agreement, cited billed by unity partisans as
proof that Labor had already softened Sharon's hard line,
includes a promise that the new government will not abandon
the goal of trading land for a final peace with the
Conditions of the coalition will force the new government to
abide by any agreements with Israel's Arab neighbors and the
Palestinians that were approved by Knesset. Thus, the 1993
Oslo accord recognizing the principle of land for peace
would be honored, but not Barak's offers of territorial
The agreement also enshrines Sharon's campaign promise to
put aside the painful decisions of a final settlement and
concentrate on further interim accords.
By a 505-243 vote, which was regarded as a resounding
victory for former prime minister Shimon Peres, but in which
only half the central committee members participated, Labor
approved an agreement negotiated with the Likud to join the
coalition and receive eight ministries and three deputy-
Labor will receive the Foreign Affairs, Defense, Industry
and Trade, Transportation, and Science, Culture, and Sports
portfolios, plus two ministries without portfolio.
Labor's approval frees the Likud to begin negotiating with
its other coalition partners. The Likud had promised that it
would keep the Finance, Education, and Justice portfolios
for itself. It is likely to also want the Internal Security
and Interior portfolios, leaving few portfolios for Shas,
the National Religious Party, Yisrael Ba'aliya, Yisrael
Beiteinu-National Union, and United Torah Judaism to fight
The Labor appeals committee decided earlier in the day that
Peres could not be approved as interim party leader by the
meeting because the issue had not been placed on the
Labor leaders who support and oppose entering the government
took turns speaking in a raucous session, and were booed and
heckled in turn by their detractors in the crowd.
Shlomo Ben-Ami said joining Sharon's government "nauseated"
him, and although he did not name Peres directly, he
pointedly claimed that "you, who would lead the government
into this coalition, will turn the party into one that
supports the status quo instead of change ... you are
accelerating the clinical death of this party."
There has been little love lost between Ben-Ami and Peres
for a long time and Peres rose to the bait, fighting back
with a speech that mocked Ben-Ami for "almost" completing an
agreement with Palestinians at Taba.
"There's a big difference between completing an agreement
and almost completing one," he mocked.
"The time has come to listen to the people," Peres said, at
times his voice rising in ringing flights of anger that he
later said were "techniques of speech making," not personal
fury. But this was clearly the old Peres in top form,
winning resounding chants of "Shimon, Shimon" from the
central committee stalwarts.
Reading to the crowd from the text of the national-unity
agreement, Peres singled out the Likud's commitment not to
build new settlements and to make "painful concessions" in
the pursuit of peace. Sharon made more ideological
compromises to form a coalition than Labor, he added, and
the agreement is far from what one would expect from a "far
The most controversial of all speakers was undoubtedly Chaim
Ramon, whose appearance on the podium immediately began a
wave of protests from the audience that included chants of
"traitor, traitor" for his open attacks on Barak.
But Ramon seemed energized by the opposition mocking the
efforts to silence him and rhetorically asked them "which
amuta (non-profit organization) do you belong to?" in
reference to a police investigation of Barak's 1999 campaign
Ramon spoke in favor of national unity -- "but to eliminate
all claims that I am doing it for my seat, for my interest,
I hereby declare that I will not serve in such a government
as a minister, but will do all in my power to make sure we
join the government."
For years, Ramon and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg had been
allies, usually sitting together at party sessions. On
Monday they were far apart as each prepares to make a run
for the party leadership and they found themselves on
opposite sides of the unity fence.
Burg, and Yossi Beilin, too, spoke passionately against
joining the national unity government. Burg reminded the
party that "only when Likud is on its own and has to face
reality -- at the first Camp David, at Madrid, at Wye --
does it take any step forward on peace. When they have us on
the inside, they don't move forward. We can support their
moves for peace from outside the government."