Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak leaves Labour Party

Monday, January 17, 2011

JERUSALEM - In a move throwing the Israeli political system into turmoil, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak dramatically announced Monday that he was leaving the Labour Party he has headed since 2007, and setting up a new faction with four other legislators.

Addressing a news conference at parliament in Jerusalem, Barak said he and the four other Labour Party legislators, three of them ministers or deputy ministers, would form a new faction to be called Atzmaut (Independence).

A request to be recognised as a new parliamentary faction was sent to the Knesset (parliament) House committee, which is set to meet later Monday to vote whether to approve the split.

Barak said his new faction would be “centrist, Zionist, democratic” and its agenda would be “first of all the state, then the party, then the media, and then ourselves.”

He said he and the other four legislators - Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, Deputy Trade and Industry Minister Orit Noked, Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai, and backbencher Einat Wilff - would do “what’s best and what’s right for Israel”.

“This is not an easy move. We have a lot of tests to challenge us, including economic and social issues,” he said.

Wilff, who entered parliament one year ago, said the five could not coexist in the same faction with other Labour Party members.

She said the threats by some Labour members to leave the governing coalition “harm the diplomatic process”.

Simhon, a long-time Barak loyalist, noted that at times Labour was divided into different factions, which each acted independently.

The departure of the five will leave Labour, in its previous incarnations Israel’s natural party of government, with only eight lawmakers in the 120-seat parliament.

Monday’s move comes amid increasing discontent with Barak’s leadership of the party, and calls by some dovish Labour Party legislators for the party to leave the governing coalition in the absence of any concrete peace process with the Palestinians.

Persistent rumours last week said that two senior Labour front-benchers - former party Secretary-General Eitan Cabel, and former party leader Amir Peretz, were set to join the opposition centrist Kadima faction.

The two denied they were intending to cross the floor.

Another Labour legislator, Daniel Ben-Simon, announced last week he planned to quit the party and set up a one-man faction, after failing to convince his colleagues to leave the coalition.

Israel Radio reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been fully aware of Barak’s decision to split from the party. He was quoted as saying the move would bring “stability to the coalition”.

However should the eight remaining members of the Labour Party decide to go into opposition, Netanyahu will head a coalition of 66 of the 120 Knesset members, making him more vulnerable to demands by smaller or religious factions in the government.

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