Defence Minister Barak quits Labour to create new 'Independence' party
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak broke with the Labour party and announced the formation of a new party called Independence on Monday, a move that will splinter the once-dominant centre-left movement.
AFP - Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday he was leaving his struggling Labour party and setting up a new centrist party called "Independence," in a move set to strengthen the Israeli government.
The surprise decision will see Barak and four other deputies leave the strife-torn faction as the result of a "shift to the left" within the party, which he has led since 2007.
But with Barak's new party set to remain in government, the move looked likely to stabilise and even strengthen the largely rightwing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"We have presented a request to the Knesset to recognise us as a new faction that will be called 'Independence'... which will be centrist, Zionist and democratic," Barak said at a news conference broadcast live on Israeli radio.
Barak's announcement was widely seen as coordinated in advance with Netanyahu in a move which could strengthen his coalition, giving him a "stable majority" of 66 MPs in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, army radio said.
In return, Netanyahu had agreed to allow Barak and the other two senior party members to continue holding their ministerial posts, the radio said.
"The state of Israel is facing tests which are not simple, at the centre of which is the political process with the Palestinians and within the region, security tests and complex challenges regarding the economy and society," Barak said.
"We are ready to face them."
Israeli commentators said the decision was a tactical move by Barak aimed at protecting his position as defence minister and remaining in the ruling coalition following increasing pressure from Labour deputies to quit over the impasse in peace talks with the Palestinians.
But shortly after Barak's announcement, opposition leader Tzipi Livni called for new elections, saying the government "lost its legitimacy today and is living off small political manoeuvres."
Until now, Labour had been the third-largest party in Netanyahu's coalition, with 13 Knesset seats.
Barak took four others with him -- Agriculture Minister Shalom Simchon, Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai and MPs Einat Wilf and Orit Noked.
Shortly afterwards, Isaac Herzog, who holds the social affairs portfolio, became the first Labour minister to quit the government, while stressing he would stay with the party.
"It is a personal resignation," he said, adding he expected several colleagues to follow. "They understand the reality very well and want, with me and others, to save the Labour party."
Avishay Braverman, who holds the minority affairs portfolio, told reporters he would resign but stay with the ailing Labour party.
"A government which has decided not to advance the peace process is a government in which I have no place, therefore at the end of this news conference I shall submit my resignation to the prime minister," he said in comments broadcast live on radio stations.
Trade and Industry Minister Ben-Eliezer, a political heavyweight within the party which now counts just eight MPs down from 13, then announced his resignation, citing stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.
"For me the peace process is an existential question for Israel," he said, adding he had no intention of standing for the leadership of Labour.
There have been sharp divisions within the party in recent months over Labour's role in the ruling coalition, which has failed in its efforts to further peace talks with the Palestinians.
Explaining his reasons for abandoning Labour, Barak pointed to a "a shift towards the left" as well as the "endless infighting" which had left the party weak and divided.
In a letter sent Labour, Vilnai said the party had "become an unbearable place."
"Each meeting you didn't know who was with you and who was about to quit and join another party."
Netanyahu had on Sunday accused Labour of being responsible for the deadlock in peace talks, saying its threat to quit the coalition was the main factor preventing the Palestinians from returning to the table, Haaretz daily said.
In the 2009 elections, Labour, which has long dominated Israeli politics, took fourth place behind the opposition Kadima party, Netanyahu's Likud and the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.