Labour members have criticised Barak for staying in government when talks with Palestinians have stalled [AFP]

Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, has said that he is leaving his Labour party to form a new political party called Independence.

"We have presented a request to the Knesset to recognise us as a new faction that will be called Independence... which will be centrist, Zionist and democratic," Barak said at a press conference on Monday.

Four other senior Labour politicians - Shalom Simchon, agriculture minister, Matan Vilnai, deputy defence minister, Orit Noked, deputy industry minister and Einat Wilf, a Knesset member - will be joining Barak in the new party.

"We are creating a new faction and we call on everyone that believes in what we are doing to join us," Barak, who has led the party since 2007, said.

Wilf said the party could no longer remain united, with one side pushing to the far left of Israeli politics,
while the other believes staying with the government is the right type of partnership.

Split over talks

Labour has been split over the handling of talks with the Palestinians, with several senior members calling on Barak to pull out of the government as negotiations have stalled.

Israeli army radio said Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, was aware of Barak's departure from Labour and had pledged to allow him to keep his ministerial post.

Two other Labour ministers, Avishai Braverman handling the minorities portfolio and Yitzhak Herzog, in charge of social affairs, were both intending to resign in the wake of the announcement, the radio said.

Barak is a former prime minister and one of the most powerful members of the government. As defence minister in the government of Ehud Olmert, he was an architect of Israel's 2008/2009 war on the Gaza Strip.

Announcing his decision, Barak said he was tired of the infighting within Labour. He accused his former partners of moving too far to the dovish end of the political spectrum.

"We are embarking on a new path ... We want to wake up without having to compromise, apologise and explain.''

Labour was, until now, the third largest party in the ruling coalition, with 13 seats in the 120-member Knesset. It has been the sole moderate party in Netanyahu's coalition, which is otherwise dominated by religious and nationalist parties that oppose major concessions to the Palestinians.

Negotiations with the Palestinians broke down in late September after Netanyahu allowed a freeze on settlement construction to expire.

Many Labour supporters are unhappy over Barak's close ties with Netanyahu and one Knesset member, Daniel Ben-Simon, quit the party last week to protest Barak's decision to remain in the government.

Source: Agencies