The Labor party’s central committee on Sunday voted in favor of joining the unity government on the basis agreed last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, upending repeated campaign promises to never serve under a prime minister facing criminal indictments.
In a vote, 64.2 percent of the dovish party’s central committee supported party leader Amir Peretz’s push to join the government. Around 3,800 members of the central committee were eligible to vote electronically on the proposal. The party, in a statement Sunday night, did not say how many had voted, but did report that participation was high.
“I thank all the committee members, those who supported [the move] and those who opposed,” said Peretz in a statement. “Tonight, we won sweeping backing from party members to… change the government’s agenda and economic policy to a democratic socialist one.”
“We are not joining a right-wing government,” he argued. “We are joining an egalitarian unity government with a rotating premiership. Our strategic cooperation with Benny Gantz will return Labor to its place as a leading and influential political movement.”
Peretz said he intended to work in the coming days to “unify” the party.
The once-mighty left-wing party dominated Israeli politics for the country’s first three decades, but has since fallen to a historic low of three seats in the 120-member parliament. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud is the largest faction, with 36.
Under the deal, Peretz is set to be economy minister, while fellow Labor MK Itzik Shmuli will receive the Ministry of Labor and Social Services.
However, the third Labor lawmaker, Merav Michaeli, has campaigned against joining the government.
Michaeli reacted to the results by accusing Peretz and Shmuli of perpetrating the “worst act of political theft, stealing the votes of the Israelis who elected them.”
She called the coalition agreement “an embarrassing collection of lies and distortions,” but refrained from immediately announcing her next steps. She said the decision would be appealed at the Supreme Court, and that she would make a decision after the ruling is issued.
She thanked those who opposed the decision, claiming that many others would have voted against it had there been a secret ballot, but supported it following “violent pressure” to avoid losing their jobs. She vowed to continue fighting for the future of the Labor party.
Peretz and Gantz spoke on the phone late Sunday after the vote was called. The Blue and White leader thanked Peretz for joining the coalition amid “one of the worst health, economic and social crises that Israel has known.”
Following the decision, Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the Meretz party which is further to the left than Labor, repeated his call for Labor activists to join his party, saying it “won’t turn its back on you and won’t betray your trust.”
Horowitz accused Peretz and Shmuli of “humiliatingly and dishonorably burying the Labor party and crawling to a criminal defendant to receive jobs on the margins of the most bloated and corrupt government in the history of the state.”
Other Meretz members reacted similarly, with MK Tamar Zandberg saying Peretz and Shmuli had “sold out” Labor’s values and would be “remembered in history books as a pair of opportunists who robbed a party to receive a ministerial portfolio.”
In the latest election, Labor ran alongside Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party and Meretz. Together the three parties won seven Knesset seats, though the alliance disintegrated after the election with Labor now reduced to three of those parliamentary seats. Gesher, also set to join the new government, has one seat and Meretz, in the opposition, has the remaining three.
After three deadlocked national elections in just over a year, Gantz and Netanyahu agreed earlier this month to form a unity government to address the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.
Unemployment has shot up to over 25% since the beginning of March, as Israel has forced most nonessential businesses to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Health Ministry has reported over 15,000 cases and 201 deaths.
The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks, but it can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems.
As part of their unity deal, Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to share the premiership, with Netanyahu serving as prime minister the first 18 months and Gantz serving the next 18 months.
Netanyahu is scheduled to face trial next month on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He denies the charges.
Allying with Netanyahu runs against repeated campaign promises by Peretz, who shaved his decades-old signature mustache on video last year. “Now everybody can read my lips,” he said, pledging never to join a Netanyahu-led government.
The Netanyahu-Gantz agreement also includes a clause on advancing plans to annex parts of the West Bank, including Israeli settlements, starting on July 1.
Peretz has said he would oppose such a move from within the government. But some Labor supporters believe that by joining Netanyahu’s government, the party will be an accessory to dismantling the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Authority spearheaded by Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by right-wing extremist Yigal Amir in 1995.
AP contributed to this report.