- Associated Press - Monday, January 17, 2011

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak abruptly announced Monday that he was leaving the Labor Party and forming a new parliamentary faction — setting off a chain reaction that cast new doubts over already troubled peace efforts with the Palestinians.

The split in the iconic party that led Israel to independence and governed it for decades did not appear to threaten the stability of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition because he still maintains a majority. Mr. Barak, a former prime minister and military chief, will stay in the ruling coalition with four followers who joined him.

But Labor’s eight remaining members, who had been pushing him to leave the government because of the impasse in peace talks, were expected to withdraw. By midafternoon, two Labor Cabinet ministers had announced their resignations. Rid of these dissenting voices, the government could find it easier to dig in on hard-line positions.

Mr. Barak, one of the most powerful members of the government, said he was tired of the infighting within Labor. He accused his former partners of moving too far to the dovish end of the political spectrum.

“We are embarking on a new path,” he said during a press conference at Israel’s parliament. “We want to wake up without having to compromise, apologize and explain.”

He said the faction — to be called Independence — would be “centrist, Zionist and democratic.” He did not take any questions.

Labor has been the sole moderate party in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, which is otherwise dominated by religious and nationalist parties that oppose major concessions to the Palestinians.

Peace talks broke down in late September, just three weeks after they were launched, over Israel’s refusal to renew an expiring settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Since then, Israel has announced plans to build hundreds of homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians refuse to negotiate until Israel freezes construction in those areas, captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by the Palestinians for a future independent state.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, called Mr. Barak’s decision a domestic affair, but appeared skeptical of the current government’s commitment to peace.

“Unfortunately, the current Israeli government has chosen settlements over peace,” he said. “We call on the U.S. to hold Israel responsible for the failure of the peace process.”

Mr. Erekat said the Palestinians this week would ask the U.N. Security Council to condemn settlements — a long-planned move aimed at raising international pressure on Israel.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni called on Mr. Netanyahu to dissolve his government and hold a new election. “The Netanyahu government is falling apart from the inside because of political rot and a lack of vision,” she said.

Mr. Barak and Mr. Netanyahu have had a mutually beneficial relationship. The men have known each other for decades, back to the time that Mr. Barak was Mr. Netanyahu’s commander in an elite commando unit in the army.

As a former prime minister who offered a peace plan to the Palestinians a decade ago that called for uprooting settlements and sharing Jerusalem, Mr. Barak has given Mr. Netanyahu a well-known and relatively moderate face to deal with the international community.

At times, particularly with the U.S., Mr. Barak has served as a de facto foreign minister, replacing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an ultranationalist who is often scorned in the West.

Mr. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has given Mr. Barak extra influence in decision-making out of proportion to the relatively small size of Labor.

But Labor members have grown increasingly unhappy with Mr. Barak, accusing him of enabling Mr. Netanyahu to stall in peace efforts. Although Mr. Barak is an outspoken advocate of peace with the Palestinians, he also takes a tough line on security matters and has moved slower than his critics would like on making concessions to the Palestinians.

The Labor rebels also were uncomfortable about sitting in the same government with Mr. Lieberman, who has ridiculed the notion of reaching a peace deal within the near future and openly questions the loyalty of Israel’s Arab minority.

Mr. Barak’s decision took other Labor lawmakers by surprise, and Israeli radio commentators said he orchestrated the move in tandem with Mr. Netanyahu. The prime minister’s office refused to comment.

Cabinet Ministers Isaac Herzog and Avishai Braverman quit the government just hours after Mr. Barak’s announcement.

“We must leave the government that brought us to an impasse in our aspirations to peace and forced upon us Avigdor Lieberman and his party and the foul racist discourse that threatens our democracy,” Mr. Herzog said.

Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at Hebrew University, thought the impact of Monday’s shake-up would be minimal because the departing Labor lawmakers have little influence over foreign policy.

Labor dominated Israeli politics for the country’s first three decades, producing a string of prime ministers that included Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, and the slain prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Mr. Barak himself briefly served as prime minister just over a decade ago.

But in recent years, Labor has been reduced to a midsize party, with just 13 seats in the current parliament. Many party members hold Mr. Barak responsible for the party’s demise, and accuse him of abandoning its socialist and dovish ideals to remain in power.

Mr. Barak’s departure from Labor resembled Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s departure from Likud in 2005 to form the centrist Kadima Party in the wake of his pullout from the Gaza Strip. Mr. Sharon suffered a stroke shortly after, but his successor, Ehud Olmert, led the party to victory in a 2006 election.

Yohanan Plesner, a Kadima lawmaker, said it was a sad day for Israel. “This is the day the Labor Party was buried for good,” he said.

Associated Press writer Matti Friedman contributed to this report.

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