Israeli Defense Minister Leaves Labor Party

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JERUSALEM, Israel - Pledging to put the State first and themselves last, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and four other Labor party Knesset members quit their party to form a new political faction on Monday.

Until today, the Labor Party had 13 seats in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 74-seat government. But Labor Party doves had been pressing party leader Barak to leave the government over a lack of progress in U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The break-away move seemed designed to allow Barak and those who left with him - Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, Deputy Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce Orit Noked and MK Einat Wilf  - to stay in the government.

Israeli law allows Knesset members to quit their parties and still retain their seats. If they have at least five Knesset members altogether, they can apply to form a new political party.

In fact, within hours of the announcement, Labor Ministers Isaac Herzog, Avishay Braverman and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer quit the government.

However, it's unlikely that the move will topple Netanyahu's government.

According to Prof. Efraim Inbar of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, the move actually stabilizes Netanyahu's coalition.

Previously, Netanyahu had to be concerned that all 13 Labor party members would leave his coalition, but now even if all of the remaining Labor party members pull out, he has a firm majority of 66 (in the 120-seat Knesset), Inbar told CBN News.

Barak announced his decision to quit Labor and form the Atzmaut (Independence) party at a press conference on Monday morning.
 
"We set out today toward independence," Barak told reporters. "We are creating a faction, a movement and eventually a party that will be centrist, Zionist and democratic."

He said the "top priority" of the movement would be "first and foremost the State, then the party, and only at the end, us." 

The move was a "well-cobbled political maneuver," Prof. Gideon Doron of Tel Aviv University told CBN News. "It counts to keep Barak as minister of defense and his friends in the government," Doron said.

Doron said he thought Barak's faction would be more to the right of the Labor party because of security reasons. Barak has trouble with some in the Labor party who are considered to be the "peace" camp, he said.

The Labor party was the dominant center-left party in Israel's multi-party political system for decades. Its predecessors, Mapai and Ahdut HaAvoda, pre-dated the State of Israel. But the party has been in decline for years.

As a result of Israel's last general elections in 2009, the Labor party moved to fourth place in number of seats it won in the Knesset. In an article at the time entitled The Decline of the Israel Labor Party, Inbar summarized the reasons for the party's decline.

"Among the reasons for the decay and marginalization of the Israel Labor Party are its abandonment of collectivist ideology (including the values of military service and settling the Land of Israel), distancing [itself] from Jewish traditional values, identification with the wealthy, abandonment of Jerusalem, and identification with the failed Oslo peace process. The party also failed to stay in sync with demographic changes," Inbar wrote then.

On Monday, Inbar said the day's events were just "another stage" in that decline. It's "moving into nowhere," he said. "There are parties [that] do not know how to adjust to changing times."

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Julie Stahl

Julie Stahl

CBN News Mideast Correspondent

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