Prime Minister Designate Benjamin Netanyahu came a step closer to forming Israel's next government after the Labour Party voted to join his right-wing coalition. He also said he would work for peace with Palestinians.
Netanyahu (right) and Barak have both served as prime minister in the past
After the Labour Party voted to join Israel's next government under Netanyahu's leadership, the Israeli's designated prime minister said Wednesday, March 25, he would seek a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Calling peace an "enduring goal" for all Israeli governments, Netanyahu, leader of the hard-line Likud Party, appeared to be trying to ease fears he would try to freeze peace talks after taking office.
"I think that the Palestinians should understand that they have in our government a partner for peace, for security and for rapid economic development of the Palestinian economy," he said in a speech in Jerusalem, adding that he would negotiate with the Palestinian Authority and work to develop their economy.
Netanyahu said past peace agreements would be honored
Delegates at a Labour Party convention voted in favor of joining the government on Tuesday. The vote means that Netanyahu and his allies can look forward to a majority of 66 seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
Netanyahu and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak, of the left-to-center Labour Party, had earlier in the day drafted a coalition deal that was signed Tuesday morning after some 24 hours of negotiations.
Netanyahu commits to "enforcing law"
As part of the draft agreement, Netanyahu committed to uphold past interim peace agreements signed by previous Israeli governments, but he would not commit explicitly to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Instead, the draft speaks of reaching a "comprehensive agreement for regional peace and cooperation."
Netanyahu, who was opposition leader in the outgoing parliament, also committed to "enforce the law" on the issue of settlers' outposts, set up without government permits throughout the West Bank over the past eight years or so. But the agreement said the government would act against illegal Palestinian construction as well.
Barak, who initiated the push to join the Netanyahu government despite fierce opposition within his own party, secured five ministerial posts, including the defense ministry for himself, and a series of socioeconomic measures.
Labour a fig leaf for far-right policy
But his maneuver to appoint his own negotiating team and bypass leading Labour lawmakers has sparked outrage among opponents. Labour MP Ophir Pines-Paz called Netanyahu's potential government the most far-right in Israel's history.
Some in the Labour Party are nervous they're giving political cover to hard-line policies
"Netanyahu isn't offering a government of national unity, he's offering a place in the most extreme right-wing government Israel has ever known," Pinis-Paz said. "He's looking for a fig leaf, he tried for a big fig leaf with the Kadima Party but when they said no he's trying for a small fig leaf -- and that's us."
Netanyahu fervently wooed Labour because he is reluctant to form a narrow majority government with only right-wing and ultra-Orthodox factions. Labour dropped from the second to the fourth-largest party in the Knesset, following the Feb. 10 elections.
Kadima critical of Labour's decision
The centrist Kadima, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, came in first with 28 seats, but Netanyahu, whose Likud won 27, was nevertheless tasked to form the next government because he had better chances to form a coalition.
Kadima has slammed the deal and Barak's attempts to join the Netanyahu government, with legislator Yohanan Klesner charging the Labour Party leader was doing so with the "flimsy excuse" of saving the economy.
Netanyahu is still negotiating with the strongly religious United Tora Judaism, which could boost his parliamentary majority by another five seats. The next Israeli Foreign Minister is likely to be the controversial politician Avigdor Lieberman of the ultranationalist anti-Arab party Yisrael Beiteinu.