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Labor Party votes to accept Netanyahu's coalition offer

Israel's centre-left Labor Party last night voted to accept a controversial deal to join a government led by the Right.

JERUSALEM // Israel's centre-left Labor Party last night voted to accept a controversial deal to join a government led by the Right. The party will join forces with Benjamin Netanyahu, giving the hawkish prime minister-designate and head of the Likud party the parliamentary majority needed to form a government. A Labor Party official confirmed last night that the party voted to join the incoming government, giving a centrist tone to the coalition that had a hardline tinge up to now.

Ofer Eini, head of the Histadrut labour union and a senior Labor Party operative, told Israel Army Radio that the party's central committee agreed to Mr Netanyahu's partnership offer. "I'm happy that party delegates have decided to enter the government," Mr Eini said. Army Radio said the vote was 680 in favour and 507 against. The deal reached with Mr Netanyahu by the party's leader, the outgoing defence minister, Ehud Barak, had run into stiff opposition among Labor's 1,500 delegates, who held a raucous session in Tel Aviv.

Greeted with a mixture of cheers and jeers when he entered the convention centre, Mr Barak told party members that Israel "needs unity" after a tight general election last month. "An absolute majority of the citizens want to see us together with the right in the same government," he told delegates. "I am not afraid of Benjamin Netanyahu; we will not be his figleaf ? We will be a counterweight that will ensure that we do not have a right-wing government."

Mr Netanyahu wants as broad as possible a coalition because of concerns that a narrow right-wing coalition would be unable to survive for long in the turbulent world of Israeli politics. Labor, the once-dominant party that suffered its worst-ever showing in last month's election, would have five ministries in a Netanyahu cabinet, according to the draft accord struck yesterday. Mr Barak, Israel's most highly decorated soldier, would keep the defence portfolio.

Under the agreement, the Netanyahu government platform would include a commitment "to reach a comprehensive regional peace agreement" and respect previous international agreements Israel has signed, in an apparent reference to accords reached with the Palestinians. It does not commit the cabinet to working towards the creation of a Palestinian state, as Mr Netanyahu's critics have called on him to do.

Mr Netanyahu says the economic situation in the occupied West Bank should be improved before negotiations take place on other issues. The future government would also undertake to work against so-called wildcat settlements in the occupied West Bank, those not authorised by the Israeli government. Mr Netanyahu, a former prime minister, has until April 3 to form a new government and has already signed coalition agreements with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu and ultra-Orthodox Shas parties.

These give him the support of 53 MPs in the 120-seat parliament - 27 from Likud, 15 from Yisrael Beiteinu and 11 from Shas. With Labor now joining him, Mr Netanyahu will have 66 seats, giving him the necessary majority. The draft deal had threatened to split Labor down the middle, as many in the party, now the fourth-largest in parliament, opposed joining a cabinet led by Mr Netanyahu. In a stark about-face from previous declarations, Mr Barak last week argued that joining a Likud-led government was in Israel's interests.

But many in the party disagreed, with some accusing Mr Barak of simply wanting to keep the defence portfolio rather than languish in opposition. Seven MPs opposed to the deal, who include the party secretary general, Eitan Cabel, and a former party chairman, Amir Peretz, threatened not to toe the line if the central committee votes to join Mr Netanyahu's government. In addition to defence, Labor is also due to get the ministries of social affairs, agriculture, and trade and industry, as well as a minister without a portfolio. The party will also head parliament's powerful foreign affairs and defence committee.

* Agence France-Presse, with additional reporting by Associated Press

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