- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2011

JERUSALEM | There is now a consensus within Israel’s center-left Labor Party to leave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition in the coming months if there is no movement in the peace process, senior party members told The Washington Times.

“We would like to see the peace process moving on as a major element, and this is our demand, and we hope Netanyahu and the Palestinians will move frward,” said Isaac Herzog, one of five Labor ministers and the first to declare his candidacy to succeed Defense Minister Ehud Barak as Labor leader. “I still think it’s feasible, and we have to give it a chance, but we’re talking about a very small window of opportunity.”

However, he said, “The general picture is that Labor’s on its way out of the coalition.”

Mr. Herzog and other Labor ministers have joined the call of Avishay Braverman, another minister eyeing the Labor leadership post, to give Mr. Netanyahu an ultimatum on peace.

The Palestinians bolted from direct talks with Israel on Sept. 26, weeks after they began, when Mr. Netanyahu’s government declined to extend the 10-month moratorium it had imposed on settlements in the West Bank.

“We entered the government to advance the peace process,” Mr. Braverman said. “I told Mr. Barak in August: ‘Put an ultimatum to Netanyahu about moving forward on direct negotiations because you’re making a mistake. You become an intermediary between Netanyahu, [his right-wing coalition partners] and America. You will fail.’

“And indeed he failed. Six months passed by, and what is the outcome? We have a right-wing government, the Labor Party is paying so much in the polls that it’s really falling apart, and I say enough is enough,” Mr. Braverman said.

“The ultimatum is ‘Direct negotiations, we are in; no direct negotiations, we are out.’ Now, there are two outcomes: If Netanyahu will feel the pressure — the way he feels it from [his right-wing coalition partners] — he has an option,” he said.

“If he doesn’t go with us, then we pull out. We go to opposition. And he will remain with an extreme right-wing government. I believe that by moving like that, it doesn’t matter how long he serves, he will be one of the worst prime ministers of Israel and eventually lose the elections.”

Labor finished fourth in Israel’s February 2009 elections with 13 Knesset seats, its worst showing ever.

Mr. Netanyahu was unable to come to terms on a unity government with Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Kadima party, which finished in a virtual tie with his center-right Likud Party. He then turned to Mr. Barak, who brought his party into the otherwise right-wing coalition against the wishes of most of its elected legislators.

One dissident Labor legislator, former party Secretary-General Etan Cabel, said that while most Israelis supported a vigorous peace process, Mr. Netanyahu had “not crossed the Rubicon in his head.”

“If he’s serious, he must call Tzipi Livni and Kadima to change his coalition,” Mr. Cabel said. “So Ehud Barak can say to the Americans, to the State Department, ‘Benjamin Netanyahu will change’ — it’s only words. Nobody can change Netanyahu.”

Media reports have indicated that Mr. Barak has sparked animus at the highest levels of the U.S. government for exaggerating his ability to nudge Mr. Netanyahu to make bold peace moves.

Labor’s departure from the coalition would not bring down the government. Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition still would control a narrow majority of 61 lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset.

But any of Mr. Netanyahu’s four coalition partners, all of whom have threatened to quit at one point or another, would have the ability to force elections earlier than those scheduled for October 2013.

Daniel Hershcovitz, chairman of the pro-settlement HaBayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party — with three seats, the smallest member of the coalition — acknowledged that Labor’s departure would enhance his leverage over Mr. Netanyahu on the issues that are important to him. “There’s no doubt about it,” he said.

But he brushed aside suggestions that he would leave merely if polls showed that his party could gain more seats in an election.

“Right now,” he said, “I don’t foresee any earth-shaking changes.”

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said he was hopeful that the government would serve out its term, but history dictated otherwise.

“Unfortunately, we see the same phenomenon over and over,” he said. “The first year, the government looks very, very stable, the second half of the second year, it starts to get undermined, and unfortunately, the third year, it collapses. We had elections in 2009, in 2006, in 2003, in 2001, in ‘99, in ‘96.”

“We are trying very hard, of course, to resume negotiations with the Palestinians,” Mr. Shalom added. “If we will succeed, we can keep Labor in. But as the Americans are saying, it takes two to tango.”

The Labor Party cannot move to leave the coalition until its convention, the date of which Mr. Barak and other party members are debating.

Daniel Ben-Simon, another rebel Labor lawmaker, said he thinks there is a consensus among the ranks now and that “April is the latest” the party will give the Netanyahu government to make progress on the peace process.

He said he and some other Labor members think an ultimatum is a waste of time.

“I think we should leave now,” he said, “because our mandate has expired. We came in order to enhance the peace process, in order to take a right-wing coalition and inject some moderation. We failed.”