Defense Minister Ehud Barak explains today why he has quit, for the second time, his position as Chairman of the historic Labor Party. In a press conference at the Knesset, Barak said, "We have decided to form a new Knesset faction, movement, and in the future - a party - that will be central, Zionist and democratic, in the spirit of David Ben-Gurion." The name of the new faction is Atzma'ut, Independence.
He said that his move is a form of a "sacrifice" of the ongoing dispute within Labor, and its constant shift leftwards and towards post-modernity. "We don't want to wake up every morning and have to explain and give excuses," he said. "Our motto will be to do what is good for the State of Israel."
Arousing the wrath of the reporters who were present, Barak refused to take questions, prompting one journalist to say, "So this is not a press conference, it's simply an announcement!"
In a move reminiscent of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's resignation from the chairmanship of the Likud and his forming of Kadima, Barak is forming a new party together with four other Labor MKs: Agriculture Minister Shalom Simchon, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, Einat Wilf and Deputy Minister Orit Noked.
Barak even mentioned that other party leaders had executed a similar move before him, including Sharon, Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres.
It appears that the final straw for Barak was the intention to hold a convention of all party members in March to determine the timetable for the party's future in the government. Labor MK Shelly Yechimovitch, one of those noted for her outspoken demands to quit the government, responded to Barak's announcement with wrath: "This was a corrupt and opportunistic move, designed to save Barak's seat in the government. He has brought a catastrophe upon Labor."
Though Barak remains with barely a third of the original Labor MKs, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has promised that he will remain Defense Minister throughout the term of the current government - to the consternation of the nationalist camp, which has long suffered Barak's refusal to allow construction in many areas of Judea and Samaria. The Defense Minister has the ultimate say in approving construction in these areas, by virtue of the army's official governance of the non-annexed Judea and Samaria.
The remaining 8 Labor MKs - even former Labor chairman Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, did not know of Barak's plans to split the party.
The current government numbers 74 MKs - a very comfortable majority in the Knesset. However, many in Labor have long been talking of quitting, in opposition to Barak's stance, and Barak therefore decided to preempt them by deciding his own timetable. At least several of the other eight MKs are likely to quit the government. This leaves the government with 66 MKs - still a comfortable majority, and without the constant threat by one party to resign.
MK Dr. Einat Wilf, who has been in the Knesset for only several months and one of the four who is joining Barak in his new party, also spoke. She said that other Labor MKs harmed the party by constantly undermining the chairman, violating party discipline, and puling it leftwards. Wilf also said the new party will not "hold a stopwatch" regarding the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Vilnai added that the behavior of his Labor colleagues in the Knesset "left us with no choice," Noked added that the party factions had "paralyzed and neutralized" each other, with "everyone doing whatever he wanted," and Simchon also concurred.