Israel's Labour party threatens to leave coalition

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The Independent Online

A senior Labour Cabinet minister has insisted that his party will leave Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government unless the Prime Minister takes the steps necessary to resume direct peace talks with the Palestinians.

Avishai Braverman, minister for minorities and a leading future candidate for the Labour leadership said the next month was "critical" as he called on Mr Netanyahu to restore the freeze on West Bank settlement building in the wake of this week's mid-term US elections.

The minister said that he had already urged both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak to extend the freeze on settlement Jewish settlement construction for "another 4-5 months" and declared: "We need to move as soon as possible. It's the only way to guarantee the state of the Jewish people - by moving boldly after the election in the US." The Palestinian leadership has refused to participate in direct talks without a further settlement freeze.

The former President of Ben-Gurion University and senior World Bank official said in an interview that President Obama should remain focused on securing Middle East peace even if the Democrats suffer reverses in Tuesday's elections. "The world needs a strong President of the US," he said.

He added: "Labour will not be in the coalition government if [Mr Netanyahu] misses this opportunity. I want him to succeed. The critical time is the next month." He said that if "there was any wisdom" there would be a 4-5 month settlement freeze to allow talks to begin in earnest, and that in the likely event that right wing members of the coalition started to peel off because of the freeze and resumed talks then the centrist Kadima would replace them.

Mr Braverman added: "Netanyahu has to make a very tough choice but leadership is about tough choices…For Netanyahu the game is now. He has to choose between sustaining political equilibrium to survive, or changing it to make history. It's tough. He has to go against some members of his own party. It's an act of bravery [that is required]."

Pressed on when Labour ministers might walk out of the coalition he added, "I don't want to pull a smoking gun. If there are the beginnings of serious negotiations Labour stays; if not Labour leaves." But Mr Braverman, a particularly vigorous critic of Israel's hard right foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, insisted Mr Netanyahu was in "a strong position" to make peace with the Palestinians as a "leader of the right with total support from the left" if he chose.

Mr Braverman said that the Arab Peace Initiative should be the "basis of the negotiations." The Initiative, reaffirmed at the Arab League's 2007 Riyadh summit, offers recognition of Israel in return for a two state solution on 1967 borders. Mr Braverman wants a deal which would put some major West Bank settlements in Israel as part of a land swap with the Palestinians.

Ehud Barak, whose personal popularity along with that of his party, slumped to a record low when it won only 13 seats in the 2009 elections, is already under pressure to call a leadership contest in 2011. Mr Braverman—whose future candidacy is an open secret, though he has yet to declare—is one of three probable front runners, including welfare minister Isaac Herzog and Knesset backbencher Shelly Yachimovich.

Mr Braverman said the once dominant party was in "it's worst position ever" and added that it "should not any more be the party of marginal changes...I believe in creating a party of major changes or it will become irrelevant. It can be transformed."