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Ehud Barak, 4 other Knesset members to leave Labor party

By Shira Medding and Kevin Flower, CNN
Ehud Barak, in this file picture dated December 27, 2010, plans to form his own independent faction.
Ehud Barak, in this file picture dated December 27, 2010, plans to form his own independent faction.
  • NEW: Netanyahu: "The government became a lot stronger today"
  • Israeli defense minister resigns from government
  • Barak and 4 others say they are forming a new "centrist, Zionistic and democratic party"
  • Some Labor party members have criticized Barak for staying in the coalition goverment
  • Ehud Barak
  • The Knesset
  • Israel

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Israeli Defense Minister and Labor party chairman Ehud Barak and four other members of the nation's parliament, the Knesset, are leaving the Labor faction and forming a new, independent faction.

Barak made the announcement Monday at a Knesset news conference. He told reporters that he and fellow Knesset members Matan Vilnai, Einat Wilf, Orit Noked and Shalom Simchon were leaving their party to form a new faction called Atzmaut, or Independence. Barak described it as a "centrist, Zionistic and democratic party."

Barak, who has come under withering criticism from some Labor party members for staying in the right-wing coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the decision to bolt was due to the infighting within the party, which he claimed was "drifting left."

Labor ministers Avishai Braverman and Binyamin Ben Eliezer also said Monday they would resign from Netanyahu's government.

"The government became a lot stronger today," Netanyahu told reporters Monday. "It became stronger in governance and its stability and this is very important for the state of Israel."

"The whole world knows that this government will be here for the next coming years, including the Palestinians," the prime minister said. "And this government is the one they need to negotiate a peace deal with on the basis of security and peace. We will operate as a responsible government that takes care of the state of Israel."

Netanyahu expressed his appreciation to the ministers who had resigned, saying, "I enjoyed our time together and I thank them."

The Labor party, headed by Barak, held a total of 13 Knesset seats. With the announcement of a new faction, Barak and his colleagues are expected to stay in Netanyahu's governing coalition.

Assuming all of the eight remaining Labor members quit the coalition, Netanyahu will be left with a coalition of 66 members, down from the current 74.

Yossi Verter, a veteran political analyst for the daily Haaretz newspaper, told CNN that despite likely losing some coalition seats, Netanyahu has come out the winner in the political drama.

"Although Netanyahu loses eight members of his coalition, he gains a loyal and stable coalition of 66 members who no longer hand out deadlines," Verter said.

"There was a danger that the Labor party conference meeting in two months would take a decision to leave the coalition, leaving Netanyahu with an extreme right-wing coalition," he said. "Now he has a stable coalition with a defense minister he likes to work with, and who is still welcome in Europe and the U.S. and has no personal political aspirations."

He added that Barak also benefitted from the move, winning himself more time as defense minister and the de facto foreign minister.

"Barak comes out of this as a winner as he took the initiative, he made the move, and this move leaves him in his position for as long as the coalition stands," Verter said.

One of the major complaints directed against Barak was his refusal to quit the coalition after peace-making efforts with the Palestinians broke down in September.

A letter explaining the decision to leave, signed by Barak and the four Knesset members, took the Labor party to task, accusing its members of disloyalty.

"For a long time many of the Labor faction members act as if they do not see themselves as members of the faction," the letter said. "They refuse to accept the authority of the chosen chairman and they speak and act against (the) decision to be a part of the coalition."

Tzipi Livni, head of the opposition and the Kadima party, said in a news conference Monday that "I believe this is a day of hope for Israel because the break up of the Labor party will be followed by the break up of the government and we will have elections."

Eitan Cabel, a Labor Knesset member, denounced Barak's move in an Israeli radio interview Monday.

"Those leaving have decided to destroy the Labor party," he said. "They need to come and ask our forgiveness for everything they have done and said against the party. The Labor party has finished the way as an alternative. The curtain has come down on the glorious Labor movement."

Another Labor and cabinet member, Isaac Herzog, quit his position as minister of Welfare and Social Services Monday and told welcomed the announcement and said it was an opportunity to rebuild the Labor party.

"Today the Labor party got rid of a hump off its back. Barak's masquerade party is over," he said.

CNN's Shira Medding contributed to this report.