JERUSALEM, Mar 25 – Israeli premier-designate Benjamin Netanyahu breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday after centre-left Labour voted to join his right-leaning cabinet, a move he hopes will head off any tension with the United States over the peace process.,
In Washington, President Barack Obama said Middle East peace efforts were not getting any "easier" with a government headed by Netanyahu — who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state — but that they were "just as necessary."
Labour delegates voted to join a Netanyahu cabinet late on Tuesday, backing a coalition deal that party leader Ehud Barak had reached earlier in the day, despite opposition from many in the veteran party.
"I congratulate you for entering into a unity government at this crucial time," Netanyahu told the outgoing defence minister after the vote.
The move allows Netanyahu to broaden a coalition that would have otherwise been entirely dependent on support from far-right and religious parties.
Bibi as Netanyahu is popularly known, now has a 66-member coalition in the 120-seat parliament — 27 from his Likud party, 15 from ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, 11 from ultra-Orthodox Shas and 13 from Labour.
Although right-wing parties grabbed a majority of seats in the February 10 election, Netanyahu has been trying to build a broad coalition that would have a better chance of surviving the notoriously unstable world of Israeli politics.
Such a union is also less likely to be at odds with Israel’s main ally the United States, where Obama has vowed to vigorously pursue the moribund peace process.
In their coalition agreement, Netanyahu and Barak remained vague on the issue, saying the cabinet will work "to reach a comprehensive regional peace agreement" and respect previous international agreements Israel has signed.
But the deal does not mention the word Palestinians or address the issue of a Palestinian state.
While Barak in theory supports the creation of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu opposes the move at this time, saying economic conditions in the occupied West Bank must first be improved.
Labour MPs on Wednesday sought to reassure that the Netanyahu-led cabinet would not neglect the peace process.
"Mr Netanyahu is conscious of Obama’s positions and he understands that one must resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is at the heart of a regional peace arrangement," Yitzhak Herzog told army radio.
"We will work toward peace in the Middle East."
At a press conference on Tuesday, Obama said his administration would strive toward the creation of a Palestinian state.
"It is critical for us to advance a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in their own states with peace and security," he said.
"The status quo is unsustainable."
Obama had been asked about prospects for peace under Netanyahu’s foreign minister-designate Avigdor Lieberman, whom critics have dubbed a racist because of repeated diatribes against Israeli Arabs.
"It’s not easier than it was. But I think it’s just as necessary," he said.
Labour — the once-dominant party that suffered its worst-ever showing in the February election — should get five ministries in the coalition and Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier, would keep the defence portfolio.
Labour will also get the social affairs, agriculture and trade and industry ministries, in addition to a post without a portfolio and the chairmanship of parliament’s powerful foreign affairs and defence committee.
Barak had initially objected to joining a Netanyahu-led government, but in a stark about-face he argued last week that Labour’s participation was in Israel’s interests.
Some party members accused Barak of wanting to keep the defence portfolio at all costs, even at the expense of the party’s principles.