After a bitterly heated debate among feuding party luminaries, the Labor Central Committee on Monday night approved by a two-to-one margin calls by Shimon Peres to join a national unity government with Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon.
Outgoing Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami led tonight's charge against joining a unity government led by Sharon and his Likud faction. In a speech to central committee members, Ben-Ami warned, "We are crowning Meretz as an alternative to Labor," a reference to their main left-wing political rival.
Peres followed with an impassioned attack on Ben-Ami. "Don't frighten us, we are not an alternative to Meretz." Shaking his finger repeatedly at opponents to unity mocking his speech, Peres insisted Sharon was ready to make sacrifices for peace, and that the country desperately wanted unity. He argued that Labor would be better able to constrain Sharon and shape national policy from inside the government.
Rowdy members of the opposing camps shouted insults at each other throughout the evening. Evan as Peres spoke at the podium, a grinning Ben-Ami was given a microphone by Israeli TV CHANNEL TWO and provided running commentary criticizing his speech.
When votes were tallied in the secret balloting, Peres won the day by a margin of 66% to 32% among the 750-plus central committee members in attendance. The vote paves the way for final discussions between Labor and Likud over coalition policy guidelines and distribution of Cabinet seats.
The emotional showdown was yet the latest drama to strike the reeling Labor party, which has been plagued by internal bickering over who was to blame for Ehud Barak's massive defeat to Sharon three weeks ago and who would replace him at the helm. Barak was pressured last week to keep an election-night vow and retire temporarily from politics, thus opening the way for Peres to assume interim leadership of the party.
Labor leaders met yesterday and forged plans to make Peres temporary chairman until a new party head is voted on in primaries in June. But a vote on the initiative was postponed due to technical rules in Labor's constitution that required prior notice of the proposal to central committee members.
After tonight's vote, Peres cited the emerging Iraqi nuclear threat, the on-going Palestinian violence and Sharon's overwhelming victory based on a unity platform as reasons for joining the government.
Yesterday, Peres said he trusts Sharon and called on Labor to listen to the public, which overwhelmingly supports the formation of a unity government. "I do not believe that Sharon wants two-and-a-half years of bloodshed," Peres said yesterday. "We have ignored the will of the nation and we paid a heavy price. I hope we do not repeat that mistake."
There is talk of several leading Labor figures splitting from the party over the matter. Ben-Ami and fellow Labor dove Yossi Beilin spearheaded a meeting with seven other Labor MKs and hundreds of party members on Sunday to show support for rebuilding outside the coalition. "None of us can threaten to separate [from Labor], but if we join a national unity government, a dynamic will be created that will be uncontrolable," Ben-Ami told the crowd. "We will be erased as a political movement. We will appear as over-ambitious seekers of the spoils of ministries."
Beilin said that the ministers joining the government are second-class and third-class Labor leaders, while its top leaders will be outside the government.
The central committee were to vote on two other motions, the basic principles of a Likud-Labor agreement and a list of portfolios the party would receive. On Wednesday, the party will again vote by secret ballot on the list of ministers.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.