Defense minister Ehud Barak splits Labor in step with Netanyahu

Four members of the 13-member Labor's parliamentary  faction have followed defense minister Ehud Barak in resigning and setting up a new party called Atzmaut (Independence.) They are Shalom Simhon, Einat Wilf, Matan Vilnai and Urit Noked. Thre Labor cabinet ministers, Yaacov Herzog, Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Avishai Braverman resigned from the cabinet. Barak stays on as defense minister in the coalition cabinet headed by Binyamin Netanyahu.

Barak introduced the new party Monday, Jan. 17, as "centrist, Zionist and democratic." The country faces hard political, security and social tests, "with which we are ready to cope." Our first priority will be the state, then the party and only finally, us. "We call on those who believe in our cause to join us."

By splitting the party, Labor's chairman preempted threats by some of its leading members to take the party out of the coalition on the grounds of lack of progress in peacemaking. For many months, it has been fragmented by squabbles and deep divisions between pro-government and pro-left factions. The defense minister said the time had come to resolve the anomaly of two Labor parties at war.
debkafile's political sources report that Barak acted in lockstep with the prime minister, the leader of Likud, which is Labor's traditional rival. The two have run the government in close harness.  His step recalls the action of Moshe Dayan in 1979, who resigned from Labor to take up Likud Prime Minister Menahem Begin's offer of the foreign ministry to promote peace with Egypt.
Barak chose a more recent analogy: former prime minster Ariel Sharon's 2005 breakaway from Likud to found Kadima, which currently heads the opposition to the incumbent government. However, the impact of his action is quite the reverse of Sharon's. By splitting Labor, Barak has strengthened the Likud-led administration, which can now hope to complete its term in two years' time after dropping Barak's adversaries within the cabinet, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Yitzhak Herzog and Yehoshua Braverman. 

Most of all, it puts an end to barrage of demands for an early election spearheaded in recent weeks by Kadima's Tzipi Livni and Haim Ramon along with left-wing factions, including elements of Labor.

While the government's opponents poured their ire on the foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman as the government's right-wing marker and the over-privileged ultra-religious groups, Netanyahu and Barak planned the formation of a strong centrist bloc to stabilize the government coalition.
Lieberman is likely to throw his support behind this bloc leaving the right-wing fringes of his Israel Beteinu with the option of peeling off and joining likeminded factions. The powerful religious and ultra-religious ministers are expected by and large to stay put.
Barak and Netanyahu hope that by reshuffling the national political scene, they will eventually split Kadima by attracting the centrist elements who are already unhappy about Livni's growing tendency to slip towards the left.

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