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Barak out of party in Israel

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak bolted Monday from his Labor Party to form a new centrist faction in the governing coalition, splitting the party he had led and leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a smaller but more stable parliamentary majority.

The step by Barak, taken with Netanyahu's prior knowledge, cut him loose from more left-leaning Labor figures who had challenged his leadership and criticized what they called his failure to push harder for progress in peace efforts.

The move led to the resignation of three Labor Party ministers who had threatened to pull out of the government over the handling of peace talks with the Palestinians, bolstering more conservative elements in the coalition and deepening doubts about prospects for peace.

Those ministers -- Isaac Herzog, Avishai Braverman and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer -- announced their resignations in quick succession after Barak's move. That left Netanyahu with the backing of 66 lawmakers in the 120-member parliament, a coalition dominated by rightist and religious parties that oppose significant concessions to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu said that his government had been strengthened and that "the whole world and the Palestinians know that this government will be here in the coming years and that peace negotiations have to be conducted with it."

Announcing his decision at a news conference with four other Labor legislators who joined him, Barak spoke of a "never-ending quarrel within the party" and "a constant drift to the left and again to the left."

He said his group, called Independence, would be "a faction, a movement and in the future a party that will be centrist, Zionist and democratic."

Zeev Elkin, a Likud lawmaker and the coalition chairman, told Israel Radio that Barak's step would "lead to greater stability for the coalition and the government" and dispel Palestinian illusions, fueled by the ultimatums of the dissenting ministers, that the government might fall and be replaced by a more dovish coalition.

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