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After staking mustache on not joining Netanyahu, Peretz defends doing so anyway

Labor chief explains he wants to influence national policy, cites socio-economic crisis: ‘I could not stand to the side’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Chairman of the Labor party Amir Peretz is seen during a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Chairman of the Labor party Amir Peretz is seen during a press conference in Tel Aviv, March 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

After confirming for the first time Tuesday that his Labor party plans to join the coalition being formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chair Benny Gantz, Labor leader Amir Peretz said Wednesday that he will be economy minister in the new government and fellow Labor MK Itzik Shmuli will head the Ministry of Labor and Social Services.

Over the past two elections, Peretz had campaigned on not joining a coalition headed by Netanyahu, and even shaved off his iconic mustache so voters could “read his lips” that he was sincere in his vow.

On Wednesday, he argued that circumstances had changed. Defending his decision to join a government that will be headed, for its first 18 months, by Netanyahu, Peretz told Army Radio on Tuesday that he had led the anti-Netanyahu push as far as he could, but now wants to have influence.

“I want the Labor party to return to the center of public life. When the socio-economic crisis is at its height, I could not stand to the side,” he said.

Labor reached an all-time low in Knesset representation under Peretz in the latest election, in which he ran alongside Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher and the Meretz party. Together the three parties won 7 Knesset seats, with Labor, once Israel’s leading party and which led the country for decades, now reduced to three of those parliamentary seats.

And with the third Labor MK in the Knesset, Merav Michaeli, vowing not to enter the government, Peretz could soon find himself as the head of a two-man faction.

Peretz said Wednesday that even before the March 2 elections, while his party was still allied with Meretz and before the extent of the coronavirus health crisis was known, he had decided to make a “strategic partnership” with Gantz and his Blue and White party.

“Gantz is a good and decent man,” he said.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, left, and Labor party leader Amir Peretz meet to discuss coalition talks, on March 11, 2020. (Blue and White/Elad Malka)

Labor is set to join the government as part of Gantz’s center-left bloc, being allocated ministry positions from the 16 going to Blue and White and its allies.

The Labor party’s central committee must approve the decision to enter the coalition. Michaeli has said she hopes the move is torpedoed by the vote.

Under the terms of the deal reached between Netanyahu and Gantz, which will end over a year of political deadlock during which Israel has not had a permanent government, Gantz will become prime minister in 18 months. Until then, he will serve as defense minister and have veto power over most legislative and policy matters. While he had campaigned on a promise not to sit in a government under Netanyahu, Gantz said the about-face was necessitated by the coronavirus crisis.

The cabinet which Peretz is now set to join will include 32 ministers at first and then swell to 36, with 16 deputy ministers, as soon as the coronavirus crisis is deemed to have ended, in what will be the largest cabinet by far in Israel’s history.

The final agreement dovetails with many of Netanyahu’s demands, including with regard to the annexation of parts of the West Bank, a process that it says can begin in July 2020. Though Gantz opposes unilateral annexation, he has given up a veto on the matter, and has agreed that if Netanyahu can secure a Knesset majority for the move — of which he is almost assured — the prime minister can move forward with it.

Asked Tuesday about joining a government that will prioritize West Bank annexation, a policy seemingly diametrically opposed to that of Labor and its voters, Peretz said he had always supported annexation of the Etzion settlement bloc south of Jerusalem, while not making further comment.

Calling the emerging coalition “an inflated government that is just a lifeline to Netanyahu,” Michaeli tweeted,  “Now we must ensure that the Labor party doesn’t take part in this corrupt and dangerous disgrace.”

Peretz said that he will respect the decision the party makes, whatever it is, though he’s already started holding meetings as economy minister-designate.

Then-Histadrut chairman Amir Peretz with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 1997. (Ya’akov Sa’ar/GPO photo archive)

The left-center Labor and progressive Meretz parties had reluctantly merged ahead of March elections in what was seen as a marriage of convenience, amid fears that one of the factions could fall below the threshold to enter the Knesset, weakening the anti-Netanyahu bloc.

Labor had previously joined forces with MK Orly Levy-Abekasis’s bread-and-butter Gesher party, which also became part of the alliance. Levy-Abekasis, who had previously been positioned on the right of the political spectrum, broke off from the parliamentary faction last month over disagreements on now-defunct plans for Blue and White to form a minority government with the support of the predominantly Arab Joint List party. She is also set to join the new government, as a faction of one.

If Labor does join the government, it would be the first time the party has been in a ruling coalition since 2011, when much of the faction bolted a Netanyahu-led government. The party and its forebears ruled Israel from its founding until the late 1970s, but in recent years have seen its fortunes drop precipitously, with many of its voters moving toward a series of centrist alternatives.

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