By Ben Knight, Middle East correspondent

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has resigned from the country’s Labor party to form a breakaway group.

Labor was the party that led the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and for years afterward, it was the natural party of government in the country.

But the party has been in decline since the late 1970s and at the last election it ranked fourth.

Barak had faced a growing push from Labor party members to quit the right-wing coalition he joined as defense minister.

He headed off that challenge by quitting the party and taking four parliamentary members with him.

Barak told a media conference the new movement would be called Independence, adding he had faced a “never-ending fight” watching Labor’s “continuous drift to the left and again to the left”.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Barak’s split from Labor made his government stronger.

The split removes the risk that a left-wing rival could have replaced Barak as Labor leader and pulled the whole party out of the ruling coalition, possibly bringing the government down.

“The government has grown much stronger today, in its governance, in its stability, and this is important for Israel,” Netanyahu said.

“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.”

Barak will remain as defense chief in Netanyahu’s right-leaning government.

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