- Associated Press - Monday, January 17, 2011

JERUSALEM | Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak abruptly announced Monday that he was leaving the Labor Party — dividing the movement that dominated Israeli politics for decades and 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 did not appear to threaten the majority of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. 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. With a smaller but more unified majority and rid of these dissenting voices, the government could find it easier to dig in on hard-line positions.

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.

By midafternoon, three Labor Cabinet ministers had announced their resignations.

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 news conference at Israel’s parliament. “We want to wake up without having to compromise, apologize and explain.”

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

Mr. Netanyahu said the Labor shake-up made his government stronger by dashing any hopes the Palestinians might have that his coalition would fall.

“The whole world knows and the Palestinians also know this government will be here in the coming years and this is the government they must negotiate with for peace,” he told a meeting of lawmakers from his ruling Likud Party.

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.

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