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Barak Will Not Enter National Unity Government in Israel

Aired February 20, 2001 - 4:49 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to bring our viewers up-to-date on late-breaking news coming to us from the Middle East and Israel in particular, some troubles for the unity government being formed by Ariel Sharon.

CNN's Jerrold Kessel is on the telephone live with us now -- Jerrold.

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A major new political development, Joie, within the last hour. The outgoing prime minister, Ehud Barak, who was defeated, you'll recall, just two weeks ago in a resounding victory by Ariel Sharon and had been intending and just five days ago announced that he would go in to lead his Labor Party into a national unity government with Mr. Sharon, has now reversed that, and Mr. Barak has said that he not only has written to Mr. Sharon and said he will not only not serve as defense minister, but according to political sources close to the outgoing prime minister, Mr. Barak, saying he will step down forthwith from the leadership of the Labor Party and resign his seat in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, as soon as possible and this will leave way open for Labor then to decide under a new leadership, potentially a temporary leadership in the first instance, whether it will go into the national unity government with Mr. Sharon.

But at this stage, it seems as if Ehud Barak's political career is at least in abeyance if not ended at this stage. A dramatic new development over the last hour. Mr. Barak had been under tremendous pressure over the last few days after he had announced just five days ago that he wanted to join Mr. Sharon as the defense minister, enormous bitterness in the Labor Party saying that his way had sailed, he personally had sailed.

He should not be going in. He should step down as he had promised to do after his resounding election defeat and as a result of this bitter, angry pressure on Mr. Barak, he has now caved into that pressure and has in fact told Mr. Sharon he will not be serving as defense minister, but more than that, he is stepping out of politics -- Joie.

CHEN: Jerrold, certainly a stunning development here, but after all, was there any indication that Mr. Barak, given the animosity that had been created within the party, that he would have been able to bring his party into unity government anyway? KESSEL: Well, that was exactly the key point. It seemed over the last two, three days, as this animosity, as you rightly put it, build up to a crescendo, that Mr. Barak was becoming the stumbling block for a national unity government for those in Labor who wanted -- who believed that it is important for Labor to go in and to be alongside Mr. Sharon in what most Israelis expect will be a difficult, difficult time, perhaps a time of confrontation with the Palestinians ahead, and that Mr. Barak was in fact proving a stumbling block to the possibility of a national unity government.

The fact that he is stepping aside means that now the debate will be open and vigorous on that very issue of whether Labor should join the Likud and Mr. Sharon in a national unity government or not and will be an issue -- on that that issue rather than on the future of Mr. Barak, the personal future of Mr. Barak.

So, he is in a sense clearing the way for that very vigorous debate which will take place over the next few days to culminate on Monday when the Labor Central Committee Forum is due to convene and where the decision will probably be taken then, both on the temporary party leadership and whether Labor will join Mr. Sharon in that national unity government. But a period of turmoil for Israeli politics again.

CHEN: And Jerrold, I need quick answer here, what does this do for Mr. Sharon's opportunity to form a unity government if he can not get Labor to come on board?

KESSEL: It's a difficult time for Mr. Sharon. He's been saying all along he wants Labor. He believes this a time when Israel needs a broad government. He doesn't want to be left with a narrow government based on the far right and the religious parties. He desperately wants Labor to come in.

In the end, he probably will get his way. There probably is just enough support in Labor for the idea of national unity government. It looks as if it's going that way now that Mr. Barak is stepping aside.

CHEN: CNN's Jerrold Kessel reporting to us from Israel on the telephone line, again, about the surprising decision by Ehud Barak to change his mind, to step away from both the Labor Party and the participation in Ariel Sharon's forthcoming, hoped for unity government.

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