Israeli Defence Minister and Labour party leader Ehud Barak announced this morning that he will leave the Labour party, along with four other members of the 13 member faction. He announced in a press conference that the new party will be called ‘Atzmaut’, which means ‘independence’, and will stand on a ‘centrist, Zionist and democratic’ platform. The development comes after a long period of internal division within Labour about whether or not to remain in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition. Barak was widely expected to be replaced as leader of the party in primaries ahead of the next elections. The remaining eight members of the party are expected to withdraw from the government. There is speculation that this group may splinter further. This will still leave the government with a workable majority of 66 in the 120 seat Knesset. Knesset members Shalom Simhon, Einat Wilf, Matan Vilnai and Ori Noked will join Barak in the new faction.
The split is another major blow to the centre-left party which has suffered a gradual decline in recent years. The parties socialist antecedents were the dominant political forces which governed Israel in the first few decades of the state. But social and demographic changes in Israel hollowed out the party’s base. Then the collapse of the peace process in 2000, which had been championed by the party during the 1990s, severely damaged the party’s credibility. Having won 44 seats under Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, in the 2009 election the party shrunk to just 13 seats. Barak took Labour into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition in 2009, promising to promote the peace process from within the government. The lack of significant progress in the peace process in the last two years has further undermined the party’s standing in the polls.