Israel's Fragmented Labor Party Agrees To Join Sharon Coalition

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

( - Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon was continuing efforts Tuesday to form a coalition government, after Labor, the largest party in parliament, agreed Monday night to join.

The outgoing government meanwhile rejected charges in a State Department report that it has used excessive force in handling the Palestinian uprising.

Having secured Labor's nod, Sharon will now turn his attention to ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties he also wants to draw into as broad a government as possible to tackle the security situation and seek a way ahead in negotiations with the Arabs.

Likud and Labor together do not hold enough seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, to rule without the support of other parties.

In disarray since Sharon's landslide victory over Prime Minister Ehud Barak on February 6, and leaderless since Barak's resignation last week, the center-left Labor Party is not entering a Sharon government effortlessly.

The decision to do so came during a stormy meeting of its central committee, during which leading members attacked each other and veteran politician Shimon Peres had to shout to be heard over heckling.

Although the vote was two to one, that still leaves a considerable group of Labor lawmakers bitterly opposed to sharing power with Sharon, who is widely regarded as a hard-liner.

Dovish lawmaker Yossi Beilin, a former deputy foreign minister opposed to a coalition, warned Sharon that he was only getting the support of some of the party.

He told Army Radio that Sharon was wrong if he thought a coalition including Labor would guarantee that its Knesset members would "come like obedient soldiers."

During the party convention Peres, tipped as foreign minister in Sharon's cabinet, argued that Labor's participation could push the government toward continuing peace negotiations.

But critics countered that Labor would provide a "fig-leaf" behind which Sharon would pursue extreme policies

"He wants us so that he looks good to the world," said Knesset member Yuli Tamir. "This is all about appearances."

Also opposing the move was Barak's foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami.

Peres countered that the will of the people was for a government of "national unity." Opinion polls suggest that 75 per cent of Israelis support such a move.

Pointing to the dangers faced by Israel both by the intifada and other regional threats - such as Iraq's bid to acquire nuclear capability - Peres said Labor must be part of facing the challenges facing the country.

The eventual vote was 504-243 in favor of the principle of joining a Sharon government. The party has been offered eight cabinet posts, including the key foreign affairs and defense portfolios.

'Excessive force'

As Sharon's government-building efforts continued, the State Department released a human rights report taking Israel to task.

Israel rejected the charge, contained in the department's annual global human rights survey, that it has "sometimes used excessive force [against Arab rioters] in contravention of their own rules of engagement."

Israel was also accused of committing "numerous serious human rights abuses," including the killing of identified Palestinian activists Israel said were planning terror attacks.

Israel's foreign ministry said in a statement that its handling of the five-month-old intifada (uprising) "must be seen within the context of the current armed conflict, which has been marked by daily terrorist acts against Israeli civilians."

"Israel has reacted in a proportionate, measured and responsible fashion to the systematic, ongoing attacks by Palestinian militia and members of the Palestinian Authority."

Since last September at least 333 Palestinians and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed, mostly during clashes with Israeli troops. Over the same period 61 Israelis have been killed, most of them in terrorist attacks.

Israel's leading English-language daily, the Jerusalem Post, criticized the State Department in a recent editorial for speaking about terrorism and the fight against it in the same breath, and using the same language to condemn both.

"As long as even Israel's closest ally does not recognize her right to self-defense, there is every diplomatic reason not only for the Palestinians to continue their attacks, but for Iraq and Iran to continue their saber-rattling and test the United States," it said.

The State Department report also criticized the PA's human rights record, saying "members of Palestinian security services and Fatah's Tanzim [militia] participated in violent attacks. Armed Palestinians, some of them members of Palestinian security forces, fired at Israeli civilians or soldiers from within or close to the homes of Palestinian civilians."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow