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Israel's Labor Party splits; Ehud Barak forms new faction

The decision by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and others to leave the Labor Party reverberates across the political spectrum. However, the defections won't threaten Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government.

January 17, 2011|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Jerusalem — Israel's beleaguered Labor Party split apart Monday in a partisan realignment that rattled both ends of the nation's political spectrum and removed from government the faction most willing to make compromises aimed at restarting Palestinian peace talks.

The decision by Defense Minister Ehud Barak to bolt from his left-leaning party, which was moving toward unseating him as chairman, posed little immediate threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government.

Barak and four other former Labor Party lawmakers said they would form a new party called Independence that would remain loyal to Netanyahu's government, ensuring Barak keeps his defense post and the prime minister maintains his narrow majority of seats in parliament.

But several remaining Labor Party ministers, who were surprised by Barak's move, quickly announced their resignations from Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition. They voiced frustration over its lack of progress toward peace talks with the Palestinians and what they called a trend toward anti-democratic and discriminatory policies advocated by their conservative partners, such as recent moves toward requiring loyalty oaths from prospective Arab citizens.

Netanyahu said the reshuffling would improve his coalition's unity.

"The government has grown much stronger today, in its governance, in its stability," Netanyahu told reporters. "The whole world knows, and the Palestinians know, that this government will be around for the next few years and that it is with this government that they should negotiate for peace."

But the defections could cost Netanyahu some standing with Palestinians and the international community. Both had viewed Labor's participation in the coalition as a sign that there were some voices within the conservative government who favored a two-state solution to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

For Israel's left, the split capped months of infighting and disarray over strategy and tactics. Some predicted the fracture would spell the end of the once-formidable Labor Party, which has its roots in the nation's founding but in recent years has became a shadow of its former self. The party won just 13 of 120 seats in the parliament, or Knesset, in the last election nearly two years ago.

Barak, whose stewardship of Labor had become increasingly divisive over the last year, expressed sadness over breaking with his longtime colleagues. But he said he had grown frustrated by the "endless fighting" with other party leaders who wanted to fire him, quit Netanyahu's government and shift the party further left. He said he hoped his new party would attract others seeking a moderate, centrist agenda.

"We are embarking on a new, independent way," Barak said at a news conference Monday. He said he wanted to "wake up every day and go to work without constantly compromising, apologizing and explaining."

Joining Barak was his Defense Ministry deputy Matan Vilnai, who said life in the Labor Party had become "intolerable. It was impossible to work." Other defectors were lawmakers Shalom Simhon, Einat Wilf and Orit Noked.

The split was reminiscent of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's 2005 decision to break from the conservative Likud Party to form the centrist Kadima. Whereas pundits referred to that fracture as the "Big Bang" of Israeli politics, many saw Monday's announcement as less significant and overdue.

Barak, who joined Labor 16 years ago and won the prime ministership in 1999, had been facing mounting criticism, ranging from his alliance with Netanyahu to what many saw as an extravagant lifestyle that did not suit the party's socialist traditions.

His departure was viewed by remaining Labor leaders as an opportunity to reshape and reinvigorate a party once led by such famed figures as Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin.

"This is the climax of an ongoing crisis in the Labor Party," said Labor official Avishai Braverman, who was among those who quit their government posts Monday. "But crisis is opportunity too. This crisis is an opportunity for the revival of Labor."

In announcing his resignation, former Welfare Minister Yitzhak Herzog accused Barak of concocting a "dark political plot" to salvage his job as defense minister. But in the aftermath of the fracture, he said, "the Labor Party has again become a political home for those who felt betrayed by it."

Gil Hoffman, political correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, said the split left Israel's left a "shambles" and delivered a political victory to Netanyahu, who reportedly worked closely with Barak in forming the new faction.

Netanyahu had been facing a deadline as early as next month to either demonstrate progress in restarting peace talks with Palestinians or face a Labor Party vote to quit the government. If the entire 13-member Labor faction had resigned, he would have had to turn to the far-right National Union party to preserve his majority in the Knesset.

By luring away five of Labor's members, Netanyahu circumvented the external pressure on peace talks and can continue to claim he leads a broad-based government.

"Netanyahu would have been left with a right-wing, settler coalition," Hoffman said. "Now he can continue to portray himself as the leader of the center, not just the right."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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