Is Labor Chairman Ehud Barak looking for a way to join Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu's government? Netanyahu and Barak met Sunday evening at a Tel Aviv hotel to discuss politics, but mainly security. The only thing they didn't discuss was the opposition.
When they left the meeting, their facial expressions were grave. Barak's associates said he was in a serious dilemma in light of the security-related challenges ahead. The two officials decided to meet again. In the previous meeting between the two, Barak had said that the voters sent his party to the opposition. This time he sounded different.
Sources in the political arena say that Barak would gladly join Netanyahu's government, if he could, but that he is aware of what his party would do to him – particularly the "future generation". It is quite possible that he is looking for the public opinion's support, which would push him into the government.
On Sunday, sources close to Barak said that he has called Labor MKs in recent days and told them that the party should join a national unity government led by Netanyahu. Barak's associates confirmed a Channel 2 report that he had called Labor MKs to check whether he could obtain a majority in the faction for joining the government, but that he might try to bring Labor into the coalition without his faction's support.
"We have to go in," Barak told the MKs. "Be on my side. I don't care if I don't have a majority in the faction. I can pass it in the central committee."
A source close to Barak said the party leader felt it would be better for the country and for himself to remain defense minister, and that it was now a matter of persuading his party that this would not harm Labor. The fact that Kadima leader Tzipi Livni would be opposition leader and that Labor could at best play second-fiddle in the opposition had to be taken into account, the source said.
The Channel 2 report said that Israeli National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon supported Barak's effort to join the government. But Ben-Eliezer denied the report, and even MK Orit Noked, considered the Labor MK most in favor of joining the government, said she believed Labor's downfall from 19 seats to 13 required that the party remain in the opposition.
Both Barak and Netanyahu's associates say that they are both grownup people who understand the responsibility imposed upon them and the missions they must accomplish. "The problem is not between them," one of the aides said. "If it were up to them, this could be finalized within two hours."
At the end of his meeting with Netanyahu, Barak said that the two had a comprehensive conversation on the challenges Israel is facing – diplomatic, economic and security-related – and that they would continue talking in the coming days.
Netanyahu said that "the main part of my meeting with Barak dealt with security-related issues, starting with the developments in Iran and the ramifications on our security, through the crisis in the south and its aspects. We also discussed the economic crisis.
"It's clear to everyone that Israel is facing a critical hour, with a pile of challenges which we have not known and have not faced for dozens of years. Israel is no one's private business, not mine and not anyone else's. We decided to continue talking to each other."
There are those in the political arena who estimate that Netanyahu and Barak's decision to declare at the end of their second meeting that they mainly discussed security-related issues and matters fatal to the State of Israel's future was aimed at creating a public atmosphere which would make it easier for the Labor Party to join the government.
Ever since he was tasked with forming the government, Netanyahu has been mentioning the Iranian threat, the financial crisis and the need for a unity government almost every day – in an attempt to publicly pressure the Labor and Kadima parties.
Sources close to Netanyahu rejected the claims, one of them cynically saying that "in the end it will be made clear that everything is splendid here and that those firing the Grad rockets at Israel are Likud activists trying to create an atmosphere of a crisis. We must wake up – the State has many problems that must be dealt with."
Acting under the assumption that Netanyahu will have no choice but to form a narrow coalition of 65 MKs, Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman will meet on Monday afternoon with the heads of the religious parties in an effort to reach a compromise on matters of religion and state.
The Likud formed coalition negotiating subcommittees to deal with issues in greater depth. Matters of religion and state will be handled by Netanyahu adviser Natan Eshel and Likud MK Ze'ev Elkin. The team in charge of finding compromises on the electoral system will be led by Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar.
Former Labor chairman MK Amir Peretz criticized Barak on Sunday for even thinking of entering a Likud-led government. "If Barak tries to join the government as defense minister, the party will not be behind him," Peretz warned. "This is Barak's right, to join the government as a professional appointment to the Defense Ministry, but that is a problem when he heads a party that doesn't agree with Netanyahu on the most crucial matters, such as collapsing Hamas's government in Gaza."
Peretz told Army Radio Barak had "no chance" of obtaining a party majority. "Even if Livni heads the opposition and we are a 'spare tire' there, we can be a very critical tire because we have a comprehensive agenda," he said.