MK Ephraim Sneh split off from the Labor Party Sunday to launch his own party, Yisrael Hazaka ("Strong Israel"). The new party, which other Labor members have also joined, is slated to take part in the next Knesset elections, which he expects to take place in early 2009.

Sneh told reporters Sunday that he would resign from the Knesset after 20 years as a legislator and after having served as health minister, transportation minister and deputy defense minister. Sneh, whose place as a Labor MK will be filled by Druze party activist Shakib Shanan, told a press conference that the Labor Party had lost much of its strength.

'I am leaving regretfully'

"It does not have the strength to extricate itself from the tough crisis in which it finds itself," said Sneh. "I am leaving the Labor Party regretfully, after more than 20 years in which I put all my energy and my soul into its success."

Although no Labor MKs have joined Sneh's new party, his resignation is a further blow to the image of the party and its leader, Ehud Barak, who has had a tough time unifying the party. Barak doesn't have a good relationship with his predecessor, Amir Peretz, or with Labor Minister Ghaleb Majadele.

In addition, the Green Party asked Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz several months ago to head the party, and Labor officials think he could accept the offer.

Sneh, who is considered close to Peretz, did not use the press conference to criticize Barak, who dismissed him as deputy defense minister when Barak took over as party leader and defense minister.

Meanwhile, Shanan's phone barely stopped ringing yesterday as he fielded congratulatory calls from friends and acquaintances. Shanan himself was wary of getting too excited.

"We need to wait a few days and see how things develop," he said. "Until the resignation goes into effect, I have nothing to say."

Shanan, 45, is an educator who lives in the western Galilee. As No. 20 on the Labor list, he almost got into the Knesset, but an appeal over the election results gave the party 19 seats instead of the 20 it had first appeared to have won, and Shanan did not make it into the chamber.