Israel's Barak Finalizes Coalition

July 7, 2008 - 8:06 PM

Jerusalem (CNS) - More than six weeks after his election victory, Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak has succeeded in cobbling together a relatively broad coalition of center, left and religious parties to govern Israel for the next four years.

The development spells an imminent end to the political vacuum political analysts say caused unease among Arab leaders eager to push Israeli-Palestinian talks ahead quickly after the May 17 election brought down Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The coalition will encompass a spectrum of opinions from ultra-dovish members on the left flank of the Meretz faction, to settlement-supporting lawmakers from the National Religious Party. Despite the inclusion of three religious parties, the overall political hue will be well to the left of the Netanyahu government.

The exclusion of the Likud Party, formerly led by Netanyahu, has been welcomed in the Arab world, where interim Likud chairman Ariel Sharon enjoys a reputation as a political hawk.

Barak sealed the deal late Wednesday with the signing up of Shas, the third-largest party in the new Knesset, representing ultra-Orthodox Israelis of mostly Middle Eastern and North African origin.

Shas is a powerful and growing force in Israeli politics, and one that backed Netanyahu in the prime ministerial poll. But it prioritizes religious and social issues above political ones, so will not pose a major stumbling-block to Barak's peacemaking efforts.

After obtaining the green light from Shas, Barak then officially informed the Speaker of the Knesset that he was ready to present his coalition of at least 69 seats in the 120-seat parliament early next week, just short of the deadline set by Israeli law.

Early Thursday, the Center Party came onboard, pushing the coalition tally to 75 members, the largest majority enjoyed by an Israeli prime minister in many years. Center had been delaying over a dispute regarding positions for its high-profile "gang of four," former senior Likud figures and a former army chief.

Barak will only finalize cabinet posts next week, although he has already earmarked several for allies who joined the government earlier. He will keep the Defense portfolio for himself, and will probably appoint David Levy as Foreign Minister. Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres is hoping for a portfolio linked to the peace process.

With a limited number of cabinet positions to go around, and many coalition partners to satisfy, Barak plans to introduce legislation to increase the permitted number of ministers from 18 to 24.

The Clinton administration has invited Barak to visit Washington in two weeks' time.