SHOCK MOVE • Barak quits Labor • Labor quits coalition

+972 is covering the dramatic split of the Labor party. Key updates: Barak leaves party and remains defence minister, forming a separate faction together with 4 mid-level Labor MKs  * New faction to be known as Atzmaut, or Independence * Move reportedly orchestrated with Netanyahu * ALL LABOR MINISTERS HAVE RESIGNED OR LEFT THE PARTY*  LABOR AT HISTORIC LOW WITH 8 SEATS OUT OF 120

Wrap up: Labor party has split into two, with 5 MKs leaving the party but staying in the Likud-led coalition, and 8 staying in the party but leaving the government, in a shock move orchestrated by Labor leader and Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Likud leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak set off the demolition charges by leaving the party and establishing a new parilamentary faction, to be known as Atzmaut – Independence; this was quickly followed by the resignation of the ministers who weren’t invited on board, slightly helped by Netanyahu’s promise to fire them if they didn’t resign. We are likely to see the emergence of candidates to succeed Barak within what’s left of Labor; as Ben Eliezer said he won’t run and is yet to prove otherwise, the candidates are Herzog, Yachimovich and leader of the country’s Federation of Workers Unions, the Histadrut, Ofer Eini.

With the party bereft of its two generals – Barak and Vilnai – Labor’s main leverage becomes socio-economical, and union baron Eini becomes the undisputed kingmaker. It’s too early to guess the constellations – maybe Eini will make a bid for leadership himself, and maybe – if he’s wiser than that – he’ll support Yachimovich or Herzog as leader and stand behind their throne as an Éminence Grise.

A third possibility is some external leadership figure will be imported into the party; most recently, there was talk of bringing back former Labor leader and retired general Amram Mitzna. It still makes sense to some degree – every centrist party in Israel needs a general – but Mitzna’s prospects are dampened by three contentions: Yachimovich’s power base of young students and moderate feminists will find another old white military male as leader hard to stomach; last time Mitzna succeeded Barak as Labor leader he lost the elections to Ariel Sharon and ignominiously resigned; and, finally, his summons to the party this time was Barak’s idea.

I’m pulling out of live blogging for the time being, but stay tuned for more of in-depth analysis of today’s events by the +972 bloggers. Scroll down to read events as they unfolded, this time in proper chronological order.

13:30. Background: Early this morning, Ehud Barak took a daring leap into oblivion by resigning as chairman of the Labor party and taking 4 MKs to start a new parliamentary faction.  It is widely speculated the Labor ministers  left out of the ploy will either resign or be dismissed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (, and their portfolios will be handed out to Barak’s acolytes. The new faction, which is aimed solely at remaining dependent on Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s good graces for portfolios, will be called Ha-Atzmaut – Independence.

Barak has been facing growing discontent within the party ranks from day one, but this was exacerbated over the past year, when it became clear the party had zero leverage in the government and that the “peace process,” for which it ostensibly joined the coalition, was a corpse. The very decision to join was hotly contested from the start, with vociferous backbenchers forming rebel groups within the parliamentary faction. Although for most of the two years the rebels were as impotent as they were loud, their mere presence signalled to young rank and file that there was an alternative to the Barak leadership, and there were persistent rumors in the past weeks the rebels were about to regroup and try a coup.

Barak’s move this morning was a clever, if desperate, check-mate to those who wanted to oust him from party leadership. He seized the initiative and grabbed the active role in the story, simultaneously cutting off the incumbent ministers of the Labor party, powerful allies who could turn rivals as the wind changed. Instead, he chose to make a new faction with a group of four middle to junior level politicos: His loyal deputy Matan Vilnai (who recently told reporters he got confused and voted in favour of investigating leftist NGOs “by mistake”), MK Einat Wilf (who supports elementary school privatisation), MK Orit Noked (who?), and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simchon. Simchon has bid this year to lead the Jewish National Foundation, but the transition between his role as Agriculture Minister and chairmanship of the largest land-owning organisation in the country was deemed to pose too much conflict of interest even for such high-level politics.

The trouble with that very smart move is that Barak is one of the most widely despised figures in Israeli politics. He is seen as corrupt, megalomaniac, irresponsible and devoid of principle; the Right sees the  unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon he engineered in 1999 as a political and military disaster, which led to the equally disastrous unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the Second Lebanon War;  the Left sees him as a huge disappointment, with a great share of responsibility for the collapse of the peace talks and the start of the Second Intifada in 2000; conservatives see him as spineless, liberals see him as a bully; for once, all of the above appear to be correct.

In their press conference the splitter faction announced that life in the Labor party has become “unbearable” of late, that there was no discipline, and that it’s been “drifting leftwards to post-Zionism and post-Modernity” (sic). MK Wilf bemoaned that some of her Labor party colleagues wanted to take the party “left of Kadima,” while she wanted to “retain the Ben Gurion and Mapai legacy.” The already ridiculous tussle for the mythological Israel centre reached an apogee: Kadima split from Likud in 2005 to bid for the centre, which it estimated to be two degrees leftwards; now Labor is splitting to bid to the right of Kadima.

Ynet had the early dibs on reporting that the move was orchestrated together with Netanyahu, and indeed we saw the split being confirmed by the House Committee thanks to the support of the right-wing members. The scenario for the next 24 hours appears to be laid out: All the ministers not on board Barak’s escape raft will either resign or get fired, and Netanyahu will replace them with Barak’s motley crew. Labor will then leave the coalition, which can afford to lose 10 MKs, especially as those 10 are expected to spend the rest of current parliamentary session  in a bitter feud amongst themselves for policy and leadership. Indeed, the issue of party discipline was a momentous one in the split in the first place, and it’s unlikely the Labor leftovers will be able to impose it any time soon.

In the short term, it seems everybody wins – Netanyahu retains coalition and gets rid of the loose canons in the Labor party; Barak retains the only thing he cares about – power; and the remainder of the Labor party get to play opposition. But in the long term, neither part of the split Labor is likely to fare well in the next elections. I don’t think Barak will even run on his own – he knows he’s unelectable; he might instead start a new party with all or some of the Likud or Kadima. The Labor leftovers’ chances don’t seem much better. For those who have some illusions about Labor’s potential, today might seem reinvigorating. But unless a major and cataclysmic young guard revolt takes place and drags it to 5-10 seats in the next parilament, Labor seems poised to vanish from Israeli politics.

14:00. Minority Affairs Minister Avishai Braverman resigns.

14:20. Shas grapples for Herzog’s portfolio; National Left to become a party and run for Knesset Shas leader, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, told Walla!News that as his party carries the flag of welfare, they will request to receive departing minister Herzog’s Social Affairs portfolio. Walla!News also reports that Eldad Yaniv until recently legal adviser to the settlement of Ariel and leader of the National Left, a semi-grassroots centrist movement, said in a private lecture yesterday the NL will run as a “Zionist, centrist” party in the next elections. NL’s main tenants, apart from enough self-righteousness to sink a steamer,  is pretty repugnant scape-goating of settlers for everything that went wrong with good old Israel, and stubborn refusal to seriously engage with Palestinian Israelis. Because of these endearing traits it was widely expected to join either Labor or Kadima, but it seems the die, for the moment, is cast in favour of an independent run.

14:35. Benjamin Ben Eliezer (see 14:00 update) also quits his post as Industry, Trade and Infrastructure Minister. I’m still a little bewildered by why Barak didn’t take this dyed-in-the-wool loyalist with him; my guess is that he either wanted a promotion – maybe to replace Vilnai – and didn’t get it, or stays behind as a Barakist to mess up the post-split internal fight even more.

14:45. Labor party young guard: We are getting hundreds of calls from people asking to join the party. Even if true, I’d take it with a pinch of salt – first, because we already had a brief revival when Amir Peretz ousted Peres, and it ended disastrously; second, because these new recruits will immediately be drafted into the internal rivalry camps already forming.

14:55. Mid-day quip parade. Retired and much missed former Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni quips that the only resemblance between Barak and David Ben Gurion is their height. Avrum Burg, formerly a Knesset Speaker for Labor, said it was a socialist party led by capitalists. A senior Labor advisor told activists this morning Barak’s new domain could be called “Akirov faction”, after the luxurious towers in which the minister resides. Tzipi Livni says that Labor’s implosion will be followed by that of the government. I think she’s wrong, but then, I usually do. Remains to be seen.

15:00. Ben Eliezer says he has no intention to run for party leader. Can this be believed, or is it a mere “I have no such ambitions, but if my friends insist, I will reluctantly take up the heavy burden…” schpiel a-la the Yes, Minister Christmas Special? We’ll see as the day progresses.

15:05. Netanyahu announces he has started “coalition talks” with the newly formed Atzmaut faction.

15:10. It’s official: Elvis has left the building. The Labor party, which is similarly dead to all except the most devoted fans, is no longer in the coalition. Two ministers and one deputy have left the party, to form a new faction; Three ministers resigned.

15:50. Netanyahu praises Labor split: “The coalition has grown stronger.” And he’s probably right: If a coup inside Labor had taken place and the entire party was forced into opposition, he’d have lost 13 MKs. This way, he only lost 8, and the 5 that remain are completely indebted to him. Incidentally, this is a shocking historic low for the once-leading party of Israeli politics: 8 seats out of 120.