Israeli Defense Minister Barak Quits Politics

In a sign of the disarray of the Israeli center, Defense Minister Ehud Barak resigned on Monday.

Bernat Armangue / AP Photo

U.S. President Barack Obama will likely miss him. Jewish settlers in the West Bank won’t.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, one of the country’s most influential politicians over the past two decades and the chief confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, announced on Monday that he’s retiring from politics and will not be contesting January’s general election.

At a hastily convened news conference in the defense ministry, Barak said he had “exhausted” his political activity and wanted to spend more time with his family.

The decision surprised political analysts and even members of Barak’s own party, who had bought billboard space around the country for ads featuring his face.

But Barak, a centrist who served as chief of the Israeli Army in the early 1990s and as prime minister in 1999–2000, appeared to be headed for a drubbing in the election. Most polls showed his party would get no more than three or four seats in the 120-member Parliament.

The move highlighted the disarray in the center of Israel’s political map, where at least four parties with similar platforms are fighting each other for votes instead of banding together to counterbalance the right-wing alliance of Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Two other centrists with name recognition, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert, are still weighing whether to enter the race.

The announcement also seemed to ensure that Netanyahu’s next government, should he be reelected, will be more hawkish than the current one. On some issues, including settlement expansion in the West Bank, Barak had at least a slight moderating influence on the government.

“This means that the next government’s foreign and security policies will turn even more rightward than they already have, and become more nationalist and resistant to any concession or compromise,” wrote Aluf Benn, editor of the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz.

Until 2000, Barak’s political trajectory was meteoric. As Israel’s most decorated soldier, he went almost directly from the Army into the government of Labor party leader Yitzhak Rabin, serving as interior minister in 1995 and later as foreign minister.

As prime minister in 1999, he withdrew Israeli troops from southern Lebanon after a 17-year occupation, a move that many now view as his most significant political achievement. He also offered to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians and withdraw from large parts of the West Bank in landmark peace talks at Camp David in the summer of 2000, concessions that no previous Israel leader had put on the table.

But when Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat rejected his offer, Barak declared that there was no partner for an agreement with the Palestinians, a move that many analysts believe helped precipitate the second Palestinian uprising and the steady shift of Israeli public opinion rightward over the ensuing decade.

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Barak was defeated by another former general, Ariel Sharon, in early 2001 and left politics for several years.

His alliance with Netanyahu over the past four years has been surprisingly strong, considering their divergent political leanings. It has also been welcomed by Washington, where members of the Obama administration have preferred dealing with Barak over Netanyahu.

Some people in Washington credit Barak for the fact that Israel did not strike Iran’s nuclear installations before the U.S. election in November. Others feel he let Obama down by not pushing Netanyahu hard enough to engage with the Palestinians.

“They assumed that Barak would deliver Bibi [on the peace process with the Palestinians]. And Barak kept reassuring them that Bibi is on board,” a former official told me earlier this year, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

“At some point they became pretty disappointed with Barak.”

As defense minister, Barak was in charge of authorizing housing construction for settlers in the West Bank—territory that remains under Israeli military control. Though settlements expanded steadily over the past four years, settler leaders saw Barak as an obstacle.

“Barak will go down in the history of Israel’s governments as the worst defense minster the Jewish settlements have ever had,” said Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein of Netanyahu’s Likud party. “Today is Likud’s independence day.”

Barak declined at the press conference to address whether he might serve in Netanyahu’s next government as a “personal appointment”—through a procedure that allows prime ministers to choose cabinet ministers from outside the political establishment.

“There are many ways for me to serve the country, not just through politics,” he said.