YouTube video

Dion Nissenbaum speaks to Lia Tarachansky about the merging of Ehud
Barak’s Labor Party with the Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party into the
ruling right wing coalition. Barak’s decision to join the coalition was a
contentious one that has split the party in disagreement. “There was a lot
of talk today in the Israeli newspapers about this being the death of the
Labor Party. There were a lot of people who thought that if they went into
the opposition, that it would have been the death of Labor anyway
because they only have 13 seats.” Speaking on the strong disagreements
between Labor and Likud in regarding to the so-called Peace Process, “I
would say that people are pretty pessimistic about an Israeli-Palestinian
deal happening no matter who is in power on either side.”

Story Transcript

VOICEOVER: On Tuesday, March 24, Israeli prime-minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu struck a coalition deal with Ehud Barak, leader of the historic Labor Party. Netanyahu’s Likud Party has already formed a coalition with the ultra-nationalist party of Avigdor Lieberman, Yisrael Beiteinu, the Jewish orthodox party Shas, and Daniel Hershkowitz’s HaBayit HaYehudi [the Jewish Home]. The contribution of Labor’s 13 seats will mean Likud will have a majority of 69 seats in the Israeli Knesset.

DION NISSENBAUM, MCCLATCHY JERUSALEM BUREAU CHIEF: In years past, there would be strong parties like Likud and Labor that would get 40 seats in the government. And now Likud has 26 seats. And so, you know, that’s hardly enough to be a real ruling party. So you have to bring in two or three, four different parties to build a stable coalition, and each time, if you’re bringing in a party that has 10 seats, 12 seats, 8 seats, you know, you have to give them something�you have to give them a ministry, you have to agree to whatever their interests are. And so you end up, you know, handing out perks to each party, and you end up being pulled in so many different directions. And then, ultimately, you know, the biggest issue, again, comes down to sort of peace talks in the Middle East.

VOICEOVER: The decision to join Likud is a contentious one within the Labor Party. The vote came down to 680 in favor, 570 opposed, and has caused serious tension within the party. Many members of Knesset have voiced they will not support Netanyahu, in spite of the merge.

NISSENBAUM: There was a lot of talk today in the Israeli newspapers about this being the death of the Labor Party. There were a lot of people that thought, even if they had gone into the opposition, that it would have been the death of Labor anyway, ’cause they only have 13 seats. One of the problems in Israel over the last few years has been that there hasn’t been the emergence of a dynamic new leadership. Netanyahu had his time and was seen as a failure. Barak had his time as prime minister, was seen as a failure. People were looking for new leadership. And Livni was expected to maybe be this new person who would come along and, you know, chart a new direction, become Israel’s second female prime minister. But she failed in that task as well. Kadima is now probably going to be the prominent opposition voice in the government, and Livni is basically gambling that Netanyahu will not be able to hold together a stable coalition, and that things will go awry, and that there’ll be new elections sooner rather than later, and the Israeli people will realize that she’s the one that can really move things forward.

VOICEOVER: Speaking to his party on joining the coalition, Ehud Barak said:

EHUD BARAK, LEADER, ISRAELI LABOR PARTY (VOICEOVER TRANSLATION): I’m not afraid of Benjamin Netanyahu, and I won’t be anyone’s fig leaf or anyone’s third wheel. We will be the counterweight that will guarantee that we won’t have a narrow, right-wing government but a real government that will take care of the state of Israel.

NISSENBAUM: A lot of people are concerned that Barak will be a fig leaf, as opposed to an opposing force, that his participation will allow Netanyahu to avoid substantive peace talks. Today, Netanyahu gave a speech in which he said that he is willing to talk to the Palestinians about peace. But the Likud Party position, the official platform, opposes a two-state solution, and Netanyahu’s approach has always been focused on strengthening the Palestinian economy and giving Palestinians autonomy but not independence. And there was nothing in what he said today that suggested that he was changing that position at all. My sense is that if there are going to be peace talks in the region that go anywhere, they will actually come between Israel and Syria. It’s possible that an Israel-Syria deal could take pressure off Netanyahu to cut a deal with the Palestinians, because a deal with Syria could change the region dynamics. It could break Syria away from the Iranian access. It would have the potential to damage both Hezbollah and Hamas in terms of financial support and arms support. And so I would say that people are pretty pessimistic about an Israeli-Palestinian deal happening, no matter who is in power on either side.

VOICEOVER: Although saying he will conduct peace talks, sources within the Israeli government have reported Netanyahu struck a secret deal with Avigdor Lieberman on settlement expansion within the contentious E1 block of the West Bank.

NISSENBAUM: Settlements are for many people, you know, the hardest issue and the central issue, and settlements have expanded under all Israeli governments, basically. There is no one in the opposition or in the coalition who really is firmly opposed to settlement expansion.

VOICEOVER: The same day, Avigdor Lieberman’s movement spilled into the Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm, when right-wing Israelis marched through the mostly ethnically Arab town, demanding its citizens swear loyalty oath to the Jewish state. Israeli Arabs within the town protested the march but were met with riot police, water cannons, and tear gas. Avigdor Lieberman is expected to be appointed foreign minister in the Netanyahu government.

NISSENBAUM: Lieberman, I think, is tapping into a frustration within the Israeli community within Israel. One of the interesting things about Lieberman, though, is that in some ways he is more pragmatic than Netanyahu. Now Lieberman actually is willing to give up the Arab parts of Jerusalem, or the Jerusalem suburbs, to the Palestinians. One of his most controversial ideas was basically giving up the Arab parts of northern Israel to a Palestinian state. It was called, basically, forced transfer. He basically wanted Arab-Israelis to be forced to become part of a new Palestinian state, and that was hugely controversial. He’s been pretty silent about it, but it shows that he is willing in some ways to make territorial compromises that Netanyahu might not be willing to make. Of course, the Palestinians are opposed to this. The Arab-Israelis are opposed to this.

VOICEOVER: On Tuesday evening, President Obama addressed reporters on the new coalition move during his second prime-time press conference.

BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: 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.

NISSENBAUM: The President didn’t really have an answer, to be honest. You know, George Mitchell, his special envoy, has been over a few times. Hillary Clinton made her first visit. They’ve danced around it. There is agreement on strengthening the Palestinian economy�Netanyahu agrees on it, Obama agrees on it, Clinton agrees on it, Mitchell agrees on it. These are things that can be done. But at the end of the day, the Palestinians still want to know that that’s going to lead to an independent state.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Dion Nissenbaum covers the Middle East as Jerusalem bureau chief on his blog. Dion has covered the conflict in Iraq, working as both an embedded reporter with the U.S. Marines and as a unilateral reporter based in Baghdad. In 2004, Dion helped cover the landmark Palestinian elections after the death of Yasser Arafat.