JERUSALEM — Israel's embattled Labor Party split apart Monday in a partisan realignment that rattled both ends of the nation's political spectrum.
The decision by Defense Minister Ehud Barak to bolt from his left-leaning party — which was moving to unseat him as chairman — posed little immediate threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government. Barak and four other former Labor Party lawmakers said they would form a new party that would remain loyal to Netanyahu's government, ensuring the prime minister maintains his narrow majority of Knesset seats.
But several remaining Labor Party ministers, who were surprised by Barak's move, quickly announced their resignations from Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition, voicing frustration over its lack of progress toward Palestinian peace talks and what they called a trend toward anti-democratic and discriminatory policies advocated by its far-right partners.
Netanyahu said the reshuffling would improve his coalition's unity. "The government has grown much stronger today, in its governance, in its stability," Netanyahu told reporters. "The whole world knows, and the Palestinians know, that this government will be around for the next few years and that it is with this government that they should negotiate for peace."
But the defections could cost Netanyahu some standing with Palestinians and the international community. Both had viewed Labor's participation in the coalition as a sign that it was serious about reaching a two-state solution to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank.
For Israel's left, the split capped months of infighting and disarray over strategy and tactics. Some predicted the fracture would spell the end of the once-powerful Labor Party, which has its roots in the nation's founding but in recent years has become a shadow of its former self. The party won just 13 of 120 Knesset seats in the last election.
Barak, whose stewardship of Labor had become increasingly divisive over the last year, expressed sadness over breaking with his longtime colleagues, but said he'd grown frustrated by the "endless fighting" with other party leaders who wanted to fire him, quit Netanyahu's government and shift the party back to it leftist ideals. He said he hoped his new "Independence Party" would attract others seeking a moderate, centrist agenda.
"We are embarking on a new, independent way," Barak said at a news conference Monday, adding that he wanted to "wake up every day and go to work without constantly compromising, apologizing and explaining."
Joining Barak was his Defense Ministry deputy, Matan Vilnai, who said life in the Labor Party had become "intolerable. It was impossible to work." Other defectors were lawmakers Shalom Simhon, Einat Wilf and Orit Noked.
The split was reminiscent of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's 2005 decision to break from the conservative Likud Party to form the centrist Kadima Party. Though pundits referred to that fracture as the "Big Bang" of Israel's political landscape, many saw Monday's announcement as less significant and overdue.
Barak, who joined the party 16 years ago and won the prime minister's seat in 1999, had been facing mounting criticism over several issues, including his strong support for Netanyahu and what many saw as an extravagant personal lifestyle that did not suit the party's socialist traditions.
His departure was viewed by remaining Labor Party leaders as an opportunity to reshape and reinvigorate the party.
"This is the climax of an ongoing crisis in the Labor Party," said party official Avishav Braverman, who was among those who quit their government posts Monday. "But crisis is opportunity too. This crisis is an opportunity for the revival of Labor."
In announcing his resignation, former Welfare Minister Yitzhak Herzog accused Barak of concocting a "dark political plot" to salvage his job as defense minister. But in the aftermath of the fracture, he said, "the Labor Party has again become a political home for those who felt betrayed by it."
Gil Hoffman, political correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, said the split leaves Israel's left in "shambles" and delivered a political victory for Netanyahu, who reportedly worked closely with Barak in forming the new faction.
Netanyahu had been facing a deadline as early as next month to either demonstrate progress in restarting peace talks with Palestinians or face a Labor Party vote to quit the government. If the entire Labor Party faction had resigned, Netanyahu would have had to turn to the far-right National Union Party to preserve his Knesset majority.
By retaining five of the Labor Party's members, Netanyahu circumvented the external pressure on peace talks and can continue to claim he leads a broad-based government.
"Netanyahu would have been left with a right-wing, settler coalition," Hoffman said. "Now he can continue to portray himself as the leader of the center, not just the right."
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, of the Kadima Party, renewed her call for early elections Monday, saying Netanyahu's coalition "is crumbling from the inside" and is only surviving "from one petty political trick to the next."