Israel’s defense minister defects from Labor Party

JERUSALEM — In a shocking move that instantly shook up Israel’s political scene, Defense Minister Ehud Barak defected from his Labor Party Monday, leaving in shambles the iconic movement that founded the country and ruled it invincibly for decades.

The move appeared to shore up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition by leading to the resignation of the other Labor members, who had been at loggerheads with the government over stalled peacemaking efforts. But it could weaken the Israeli leader in the long run by reducing his majority and undermining his attempts to portray himself as a centrist leader.

Barak, the departing party leader and former prime minister, will stay in the ruling coalition with four other followers in a new party. But Labor’s eight remaining lawmakers — including three ministers — will withdraw.

Netanyahu’s remaining majority of 66 seats in the 120-member parliament now seems safer than before, and it will be dominated even more by hawks opposed to serious concessions to the Palestinians.

The Palestinians refuse to negotiate until Israel completely freezes settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — captured areas they claim for a future state. It’s unlikely the current coalition, dominated by nationalist and Orthodox Jewish parties, will do so.

Barak, 68, said he was tired of the infighting within Labor and accused his former partners of being too soft on issues of war and peace. His colleagues have been agitating to leave the government, and had been pushing for a party decision to withdraw from the government entirely, which would have made it more awkward for Barak to stay.

“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 his new party — to be called Independence — would be “centrist, Zionist and democratic.”

For Labor, the dramatic announcement marked another chapter in its stunning fall from grace.

The once proud party dominated Israeli politics for the country’s first three decades, producing a string of prime ministers that included David Ben-Gurion — Israel’s founding father — Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and the slain prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Barak himself briefly served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001.

Labor led Israel to independence in 1948 and left its imprint on all important aspects of Israeli life for decades. Its stalwarts founded the kibbutz movement — communal farms that for a time captured the world’s imagination — and set up the basic institutions of state that live on today. It was finally unseated by the more hard-line Likud in 1977, beginning a period of two-party domination that has ended with Labor’s drop in support.

At its peak in 1969, Labor and a partner won 56 seats in the 120-seat parliament and it dropped below 40 only twice before 1996, when its support began to falter.

With Rabin at the helm in the early 1990s, Israeli signed historic accords with the Palestinians and Jordan. But since Barak’s ambitious attempts as prime minister at making peace with Syria and the Palestinians collapsed, the public has shifted to the right.

Netanyahu welcomed Barak’s defection Monday, saying the shake-up would make the government stronger by dashing any hopes the Palestinians might have that the coalition would collapse.

Barak’s departure was quietly planned for the past 10 days in coordination with Netanyahu, officials said.

One Labor stalwart, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said he was shocked to learn of the move early Monday. He angrily said Barak had “spit in the face of the party that elected him.”

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

In one of the more ironic developments of Israeli politics — as Sharon was once considered an uncompromising nationalist — Kadima has effectively replaced Labor as the anchor party of the Israeli left.

Kadima won 29 seats in the last election while Labor dropped to 13, making it only the fourth-largest party in parliament before Monday’s breakup.

A poll conducted Monday for Channel 10 TV showed that if an election were held now, Labor would win eight seats and Barak’s new party only three. Likud would gain three seats and its hawkish partner, Yisrael Beiteinu, would gain two. The poll questioned 505 respondents with a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.

Many party members hold Barak responsible for Labor’s demise, accusing him of abandoning its socialist and dovish ideals to remain in power. In the past year it has been rife with infighting and high-profile resignations.

“The significance is historical for the Labor movement — it used to be the leading movement of the Zionist revolution and now … we see the remains of this party,” said Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Former Labor lawmaker Yael Dayan said Monday’s move provided the party its last chance of survival. She suggested that the remaining members could unite with Kadima and the dovish Meretz to create a powerful social democratic party that the country badly lacked.

“There is a vacuum, and I think now is the time to offer an alternative,” she said.

Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath gave a similar assessment, saying Barak had become virtually identical to the hard-line Netanyahu. “The only hope is for the Labor Party to rise from the ashes without him (Barak),” he said.

Barak unseated Netanyahu in 1999 parliamentary elections, but as coalition partners over the past two years, they have had a fruitful relationship. The men have known each other for decades, dating back to the 1970s, when Barak was Netanyahu’s commander in an elite army commando unit.

Barak has given the governing coalition a well-known and relatively moderate face to deal with the international community, and Netanyahu has awarded Barak great influence on decision making.

Einat Wilf, a Labor lawmaker who joined Barak, said the defection would actually increase the chances for peace.

“We think this also sends an important message to the Palestinians, to the Arabs — if you want to talk, talk to this government,” she told The Associated Press. “If an agreement should be possible, it is this government that will bring the support of the vast majority of Israelis.”

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni called on Netanyahu to dissolve his government and call a new election.

Copyright 2011, The Associated Press. All rights reserved.