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Divided Labor Party Votes To Join Sharon Government

By Tracy Wilkinson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- TEL AVIV

Israel’s largest political party tore itself to pieces Monday and then voted reluctantly to join the incoming government of Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon.

Taken after a raucous six-hour convention, the decision of the center-left Labor Party to ally with Sharon clears the most important hurdle in the forming of a “national unity” government. It will allow the right-wing leader to broaden his power base and achieve a measure of stability.

But the spectacle leading up to Monday night’s vote raises serious questions about the future of the Labor Party, and whether it will be an effective coalition partner. The debate during the last three weeks over whether to enter Sharon’s government threw the party into a chaotic and very public free-for-all as senior members fought over Cabinet posts, ideology and self-preservation.

A casualty to both a failed peace process and the fundamental changes in Israeli society, the Labor Party -- the political faction most intertwined with the history of the Jewish state and the Zionist movement -- will be forced to undergo a major overhaul or perhaps face extinction, analysts say.

The party’s crisis intensified with the Feb. 6 election, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak lost to Sharon by the largest margin in Israeli political history. Barak toyed with accepting Sharon’s offer to join his government, then abruptly reneged and quit politics, leaving Labor leaderless.

Although polls show the Israeli public, traumatized by nearly five months of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed, overwhelmingly favors a national unity government, opponents within Labor argued against hooking up with right-wingers determined to slow down the pursuit of peace. Better to remain in the opposition, they said.

But advocates like Labor elder statesman Shimon Peres eventually won the day. In an impassioned plea to Monday’s meeting of the party’s 1,700-member Central Committee, Peres said he was convinced Labor would be an effective restraint on Sharon.

“The people want a unity government; for once, listen to them!” said Peres, who will likely serve as foreign minister in the new government. “This party will not cease to exist,” he added, raising his voice and pounding on the lectern.

Members voted by a two-thirds’majority to join Sharon’s government. But less than half the total membership of the central committee participated in the vote.

Later, the 77-year-old Peres said the decision was good for both Israel and the party. “The country now has a chance for peace,” he said, “and the party has a chance to renovate itself.”

Throughout the meeting in a Tel Aviv movie auditorium, Labor activists shouted down speakers and then shouted down each other, leaping to their feet and jabbing their fingers in the air.

Outgoing Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami led the charge against uniting with Sharon.

“We are on the verge of deciding whether to be or not to be,” he said. “A unity government will be a death sentence for this party. Only as an opposition force can we remain intact. Joining this unity government will erase our identity as a party and as a movement.”