By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak faced the possible breakup of his left-of-center Labor party when a group of lawmakers threatened on Tuesday to break away protesting a lack of movement in peace talks.
Legislator Eitan Cabel of Labor said he was one of four of the party’s 13 legislators launching a movement to press Israel to renew stalled negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians.
Cabel told Reuters the group demanded “a lot more activism by Israel to advance the peace process” and could quit the party unless Barak heeded their message, a step that could weaken rightist Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
The threat introduced the risk that Netanyahu’s fractious seven-month-old coalition was vulnerable not only to pressures from ultranationalists against stopping Jewish settlement, but also to demands from moderates seeking more diplomacy.
Netanyahu commands the support of 71 of parliament’s 120 lawmakers, but his coalition comprises an uneasy alliance of unlikely partners as Barak’s Labor as well as far-right and religious factions.
Cabel, a veteran lawmaker removed months ago as party director after criticizing the alliance with Netanyahu, accused Barak of “destroying the Labor party and now destroying the Left,” by failing to press further to renew peace talks.
Israeli negotiations with Palestinians stalled over a Gaza war in December, and efforts to revive them have so far failed despite the efforts of U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who was due back in the region for further talks this week.
TALKS MUST RESUME
Cabel accused Barak of failing to ease Netanyahu’s resistance to freezing construction in Jewish settlements, which Palestinians see as a key obstacle to resuming peace talks.
“There must be a freeze,” Cabel said in a telephone interview, adding that Barak’s stance made him appear as though “he was planted by the Right as a virus.”
“Time isn’t on our side,” Cabel added, also urging a resumption of talks with Syria stalled since 2000 in a dispute over demands Israel withdraw from land captured in a 1967 War.
“There is quiet along the border with Syria but which could blow up at any moment without anyone’s express intent,” Cabel said.
He and three allies would launch their group called “The Democratic Platform,” in the coming days as a forum to generate new ideas, and try to force Barak either to wield more influence for peace or to step aside as party leader, Cabel said.
Under Israeli law, they would need the support of at least five lawmakers, or a third of Labor’s slate, in order to secede and form a separate parliamentary faction.
The party’s faction leader, Daniel Ben-Simon, resigned that job last week but has not said whether he would join Cabel.
A Labor official close to Barak said the defense minister, a veteran military chief, had “done more for peace than anyone in the party, often risking his political career.”
A former prime minister who lost a snap election after a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000 when peace talks failed, Barak insists he had a key role in Netanyahu’s conditional nod in June to establishing a Palestinian state next to Israel.