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Israel's Barak breaks from Labor Party, fortifying bond with Netanyahu

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak left his Labor Party to form a faction that would preserve his alliance with Prime Minister Netanyahu, throwing the political system into turmoil.

By Correspondent / January 17, 2011

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak attends a press conference in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Monday. Defense Minister Ehud Barak abruptly announced Monday that he was leaving his Labor Party and forming a new parliamentary faction.

Bernat Armangue/AP

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Tel Aviv, Israel

Facing growing calls from within his party to withdraw from Israel's government over the peace process deadlock, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak instead bolted from the Labor Party to form a breakaway parliamentary faction that would preserve his alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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The surprise move from the party leader and former prime minister threw Israel's political system into turmoil. Rival Labor cabinet ministers immediately resigned from the government, taking their rump party – which monopolized Israeli politics for 30 years after the state's creation – into the parliamentary opposition.

Mr. Barak and the Labor party have been seen by the United States as key forces in driving the diplomatic peace process. The move will curtail Barak's sway in the cabinet, while shifting power to ultranationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the ultra-religious Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

Though the splintering of the dovish Labor party won't topple the Netanyahu government, it shrinks the prime minister's majority to 66 from 74 seats in the 120-member Knesset. And it reshapes the government's profile as that of a narrow alliance of hawkish and religious parties, rather than that of a broad coalition straddling the political center.

Government defections have historically triggered prolonged coalition unravelings, leading to elections. But some analysts say that the departure of Labor parliamentarians, who have been threatening for months to leave over the moribund peace process, gives the government more cohesion.

"The coalition is undergoing changes, and it introduces an element of instability,'' says Chemi Shalev, a political commentator for the daily newspaper Yisrael Hayom. "I'm not sure that Washington will appreciate the change, because they will think that it gives less sway to Barak.''

The splintering of Labor potentially strengthens the position of opposition leader Tzipi Livni and her center-left Kadima party as the sole governing alternative to Netanyahu. It is unclear who will fill the Cabinet vacancies; it could be lawmakers from Barak's new faction or other coalition members.

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