Israeli defense minister quits Labor Party, forms centrist faction

By Joel Greenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 17, 2011; 7:25 PM

JERUSALEM - Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak bolted from his Labor Party on Monday to form a new centrist faction in the governing coalition, splitting the party he had led and leaving Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with a smaller but more stable parliamentary majority.

The step by Barak, taken with Netanyahu's prior knowledge, cut him loose from more left-leaning Labor figures who had challenged his leadership and criticized what they called his failure to push harder for progress in peace efforts.

The move led to the resignation of three Labor Party ministers who had threatened to pull out of the government over the handling of peace talks with the Palestinians, bolstering more conservative elements in the coalition and deepening doubts about prospects for peace.

Netanyahu said that his government had been strengthened, and that "the whole world and the Palestinians know that this government will be here in the coming years and that peace negotiations have to be conducted with it."

Announcing his decision at a news conference with four other Labor legislators who joined him, Barak said there had been a "never-ending quarrel within the party" and "a constant drift to the left and again to the left."

He said his new group, called Independence, would be "a faction, a movement and in the future a party that will be centrist, Zionist and democratic."

Shalom Simhon, a Labor minister who joined Barak, said the new faction's place on the political spectrum would be between Netanyahu's rightist Likud party and the centrist opposition party, Kadima.

Barak's deputy, Matan Vilnai, who also defected, said that the new political alignment would make it possible to pursue peace efforts "without a stopwatch," a reference to ultimatums by other Labor ministers who warned that the party would leave the government if there was no early resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians.

Those ministers, Isaac Herzog, Avishai Braverman and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, announced their resignations in quick succession after Barak's move. That left Netanyahu with the backing of 66 lawmakers in the 120-member parliament, a coalition dominated by rightist and religious parties that oppose significant concessions to the Palestinians.

Zeev Elkin, a Likud lawmaker and the coalition chairman, told Israel Radio that Barak's step would "lead to greater stability for the coalition and the government" and dispel Palestinian illusions, fueled by the ultimatums of the dissenting ministers, that the government might fall and be replaced by a more dovish coalition.

"Now the picture is very clear," Elkin said. "There is a stable government and a stable coalition. With this government the Palestinians will have to negotiate if they are really interested in doing so."

Labor, which held 13 seats, is now down to eight. "The Labor Party, which founded the state of Israel, rid itself today of a hump on its back," Herzog told a news conference, referring to Barak. "We're on our way to the opposition."

The split in Labor was a new low point for a party that had dominated Israeli politics for decades and produced successive prime ministers, starting with the country's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, and including Yitzhak Rabin, slain in 1995 by an opponent of his accords with the Palestinians. Barak served as Labor's last prime minister from 1999-2001 but was voted out after his efforts to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians failed.

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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