Benjamin Netanyahu's bid to moderate the image of his incoming Israeli government faces a crucial test on Tuesday when the centrist Labor Party decides whether to join.
Negotiators from Labor and Netanyahu's hawkish Likud Party have been working for the past two days on a coalition agreement that is to be presented to Labor's central committee later on Tuesday. Half of Labor's lawmakers object to teaming up with Netanyahu, and the vote in the larger committee could be dramatic and close.
Netanyahu takes a hawkish approach to peacemaking with the Palestinians and Syria. But he's been courting moderates in the hope of forming a stable government that wouldn't be hostage to the demands of junior partners and enjoy more international credibility because some members are committed to peace talks. The two coalition allies he's signed on so far are hard-liners.
Labor's leader, defense minister Ehud Barak, initially had declared that the party would serve outside the government as a "responsible, serious and constructive opposition." But with his own personal fortunes inside the party in question and Netanyahu eager to soften the hard-line edge that the current coalition lineup projects, Barak switched gears. He said Israel would be better served by a government including the moderate Labor than a narrow coalition of hard-liners.
Allying with Netanyahu would likely allow Barak to continue serving as defense minister and assure other veteran Labor lawmakers ministerial jobs.
Labor dominated the country's political and economic life for the first half of Israel's history and was the party that signed peace accords with the Palestinians and Jordan. But its fortunes have sagged and its presence in parliament was whittled down to just 13 seats in the February 10 elections.
Barak's about-face has sparked a rebellion among more dovish Labor lawmakers who say the party would serve as a fig leaf for a hard-line government and have little impact on its policies. They say they won't be bound by any coalition agreement because Barak entered into negotiations without their approval.
It is not clear Barak would survive politically if the vote goes against him. Although he enjoyed high popularity ratings during the recent war in the Gaza Strip, he is seen by some within the party as a political liability and could be ousted from Labor's chairmanship. Alternatively, he could leave Labor and remain defense minister within Netanyahu's government _ something he has said he would not do.
Coalition talks have so far yielded two agreements, with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas.
Yisrael Beiteinu's chief, Avigdor Lieberman, favors redrawing Israel's borders to exclude Arab citizens. Shas is not even prepared to discuss a key issue that would need to be resolved to make peace with the Palestinians: The Palestinians' demand for sovereignty over Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods, captured by Israel in 1967 and immediately annexed.
If no moderates join him, Netanyahu would be left with a slim coalition of hard-line and ultra-Orthodox parties controlling no more than 65 of parliament's 120 seats.
Netanyahu's big prize would be Israel's largest party, the moderate Kadima led by foreign minister Tzipi Livni. But she has refused to team up with Netanyahu because he won't express commitment to negotiating the establishment of a Palestinian state or let her serve as prime minister for half of his government's term.
Kadima won 28 parliamentary seats. Although the largest party generally puts together the government, the task fell to Netanyahu because more lawmakers said they'd join up with him than with Livni.
Netanyahu has until April 3 to form a coalition with a majority in the parliament. He hopes to take office next week, replacing Ehud Olmert, who announced in September that he would resign to battle a series of corruption allegations.