TEL AVIV // Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, quit the leadership of the Labor Party yesterday in a move that appeared to strengthen the right-leaning Israeli government and dim further any hopes for the peace talks with the Palestinians.
Mr Barak, 68, a former prime minister and military chief, took with him four of the 13 parliamentary members of Labor to form a new political movement called Independence. The new faction is likely to replace Labor as the only centrist movement in the predominantly right-wing government, although analysts say its smaller size would give it less power than Labor.
Analysts said that while the move would not draw more public support for Mr Barak, who has lost significant backing from Labor supporters for joining a right-leaning government, it would probably stabilise the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister has often been criticised by the three Labor ministers in the government who were not aligned with Mr Barak and who have threatened to take the party out of the government should peace talks with the Palestinians remain deadlocked. Such an exit could have brought Mr Netanyahu's government down.
Yesterday, those three Labor cabinet members quit their posts, and Mr Barak officially launched talks with Mr Netanyahu over his new faction joining the coalition.
Talks with the Palestinians are likely to further stall because Mr Barak will now head a much smaller centrist party, according to some analysts. They say that party would be overshadowed by the larger ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious parties that already dominate the coalition and oppose major concessions to the Palestinians.
Israeli analysts said Mr Barak probably coordinated his decision with Mr Netanyahu in a bid to retain his position as defence minister, a post he has held for more than three years. Mr Netanyahu has sought to keep Mr Barak by his side because the defence minister has served as his coalition's moderate face and helped stave off international criticism of the hardline composition of the government. The prime minister, analysts said, was also looking to rid himself of dissenters within his coalition, and his government would account for a 66-member majority of the 120-member parliament with Mr Barak's new faction.
Mr Netanyahu, speaking after Mr Barak's announcement, suggested that he was satisfied with his coalition's realignment. He indicated the arrangement dashed the hopes of Palestinians and centrist and left-wing opponents that Labor eventually would exit the government and prompt its collapse. "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," he said.
Palestinians yesterday largely viewed Labor's split as an internal Israeli affair. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, was quoted by Reuters as expressing scepticism about peace prospects. "Unfortunately, the current Israeli government has chosen settlements over peace," he said. For Mr Barak, the split is unlikely to help him regain public popularity, which he had long hoped would catapult him back to the premiership, a post he occupied from 1999-2001. That is mainly because Mr Barak, who portrays himself as a peace-seeking centrist, is now viewed as allying himself with right-wing leaders such as Avigdor Lieberman, the ultra-nationalist foreign minister, and Eli Yishai, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Shalom Yerushalmi, a political analyst for the Maariv newspaper, wrote: "Barak is establishing a party that will only lead him and his partners to a sad end of their political career inside a rightwing government in which Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai are setting the tone."
Indeed, Mr Barak suggested yesterday that his views may have shifted rightward on Israel's approach to the Palestinians. He condemned Labor's "troubling drift to the left" during a press conference in Israel's parliament and added: "We are embarking on a new path. We want to wake up without having to compromise, apologise and explain." He said that the new faction would be "centrist, Zionist and democratic".
For Labor, the party that had dominated Israeli politics for the first three decades after the country's 1948 establishment and had pioneered peace negotiations with the Palestinians during 1990s, the split appeared to be a further indication of its marginalisation after it polled its worst-ever results in the last election in 2009.
Matan Vilnai, one of the Labor politicians who joined Mr Barak in the new faction, suggested yesterday that infighting had reached new heights. "At every meeting, you never knew who was with you and who was ready to quit and join a different party," he said.
Mr Barak's move also means that the chances have significantly decreased for Kadima, the centrist party that heads the opposition and that ruled over the previous government, to join Mr Netanyahu's governing coalition.
Speculation in Israel's political world has been rife that the two parties may unite after Kadima won one more seat than the Likud in the 2009 election but failed to cobble together a coalition because it did not have the support of enough right-wing parties.
Analysts have said that the US had hoped that Kadima would join the coalition because the party has shown itself more open than Likud towards making concessions towards the Palestinians in a future peace deal.