- The Washington Times - Monday, February 4, 2008

TEL AVIV — Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday that his Labor Party will not leave the ruling coalition, ensuring the survival of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government despite last week’s release of a highly critical report on his handling of the Lebanon war.

Mr. Barak’s anxiously awaited announcement ends 18 months of speculation over whether Mr. Olmert would be forced to resign over a botched offensive against Hezbollah in August 2006. It also buttresses the prime minister in the face of withdrawal threats from coalition partners worried about recently renewed peace talks with the Palestinians.

Months ago, Mr. Barak said Mr. Olmert should step down once the Winograd Commission published its final report, but yesterday he said he had changed his mind.

“I have decided to stay. Why am I staying? Because I know the challenges that the state of Israel faces — Gaza, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, rebuilding the [Israel Defense Forces] and the peace process,” he said. “I think that at this point in time, I think this is what is good for the country.”

Israeli analysts think Mr. Barak was also motivated by polls showing that an early election would return Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party to the prime minister’s office.

The decision leaves Israel’s center-left government in place to pursue peace talks. Prodded by the United States, Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas have resumed negotiations for the first time in seven years with the goal of reaching an agreement by the end of President Bush’s term.

But Israel’s failure to decisively defeat Hezbollah in the Lebanon war has left Mr. Olmert with low approval ratings, which will complicate any effort to whip up public support for concessions needed to reach a peace treaty with Mr. Abbas.

Mr. Barak’s decision carries its own risks, as it could alienate those on either wing of his own party who had hoped the Winograd report would prompt new elections.

It’s also a setback for a movement of reserve soldiers and bereaved parents who saw Mr. Barak — a retired general — as the last hope to bring down Mr. Olmert over the war.

“I’m disappointed,” said Roni Zweigenbaum, a reservist pushing for Mr. Olmert’s resignation. “I thought that he would overcome his political instincts. There is a scary disconnect between what the politicians want and what the people want.”

Since the Winograd Commission released its final report on Wednesday, Mr. Barak had been weighing what some commentators described as a lose-lose dilemma — undermine his credibility by staying in the coalition or pull out and force new elections in which he would be an underdog.

The Winograd final report assigned Mr. Olmert much of the blame for a series of failures in the handling of the war. But it used more measured language than an interim report released in May and did not criticize Mr. Olmert’s decision late in the conflict to embark on a costly ground war.

That made it easier for Mr. Barak to keep his party in the government — and himself in the defense minister’s post. But the decision disappointed at least some members of his own party.

“I expected that Barak would initiate a change in the Israeli political culture,” said Labor Party member Ofir Pinnes. He said he had thought that Mr. Barak “would hew to the ethical code — that when you fail you leave, and that when you make promises, you make good on them. That’s all.”

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