Ben-Simon quits as Labor faction chair

Ben-Simon quits as Labor

After months of deliberation that started shortly after the coalition agreement between Labor and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, freshman Labor MK Daniel Ben-Simon announced Monday that he was resigning as chairman of the party's troubled Knesset faction. But while Ben-Simon's plans to resign had been rumored for months, the larger surprise came when opposition party Kadima beckoned the MK, who then stressed hours after his dramatic announcement that he was not yet ready to turn his back on Labor Chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In a letter sent to fellow faction members, Ben-Simon said that the party's goals within the coalition were to promote the peace process, remove outposts and reduce socio-economic disparity. Ben-Simon argued that the party had not accomplished those goals and was betraying its constituents. Nevertheless, at the press conference, Ben-Simon said he still "believes in Ehud Barak's abilities" as Labor leader, but if the outposts the government had committed to remove were not dismantled, the party "will be in trouble." Speaking to Army Radio later, Ben-Simon said that if the peace process is not resumed within two weeks, "we must leave the government." Ben-Simon wrote in the letter that Labor had in essence split into two factions, each operating simultaneously. But in later conversations, the former journalist said he had not decided to join the self-styled "Group of Four" - MKs Ophir Paz Pines, Eitan Cabel, Amir Peretz and Yuli Tamir, who effectively became an internal opposition to Barak because they opposed joining the Netanyahu government. The four are, however, one MK short of constituting the one-third of the faction necessary to split off and establish themselves as a separate party. Both Ben-Simon and MK Shelly Yacimovich have been suggested as the possible fifth. Ben-Simon said Monday that he was hoping that his drastic step would "start a ball rolling that would start other balls rolling," and would thus push the Labor Central Committee to press Barak to change his ways. But he was intentionally coy when asked if he would consider joining the rebels should Barak prove impervious to internal pressure. Barak, meanwhile, played it cool when the remains of the Labor Party gathered for its weekly faction meeting, telling the handful of gathered MKs - and perhaps also those who weren't in attendance - that he "respected Ben-Simon's decision." In a quasi-response to Ben-Simon's letter, Barak emphasized that the coming Knesset session would be dominated by the peace process. "We are trying, together with the United States, to formulate a policy through which it will be possible to renew the process," Barak said. But even as Barak tried to emphasize party unity, he found himself butting heads with the few party members in the room, as Yacimovich protested heavy-handed attempts by Barak's spokesman, Barak Seri, to remove reporters from the session. And even statements by Barak's closest supporters - the Labor members who received ministerial positions - did not fully back the party leader. "The party is stronger than all of us together," said National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, considered one of the least volatile members of the 13-member faction. "I see dissent and rebellion here, like in every party. Did you forget what happened in Likud? And what was in the former National Religious Party? "The question is, to what degree we will manage to turn inwards and overcome this moment. I propose that Barak convene all of the faction members to make a giant accounting and make decisions." Perhaps nowhere was Ben-Simon's resignation as openly welcomed as in Kadima. Kadima MKs posed for pictures with the former faction leader outside of the meeting rooms in the early afternoon. Kadima faction leader Dalia Itzik - herself a former Labor member - said that Ben-Simon's action was "the beginning of the coalition's crumbling." Itzik said that Netanyahu had "unnaturally composed a coalition mish-mash whose results we are seeing today."