JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday abruptly announced he was quitting politics, injecting new turmoil into the Israeli political system weeks ahead of general elections.
Barak, Israel’s most-decorated soldier and one-time prime minister, said he would stay on in his current post until a new government is formed following the Jan. 22 balloting.
His resignation could mean the departure of the most moderating influence on hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who holds a wide lead in polls and is expected to easily win re-election.
Less than a week ago, Barak led an eight-day military offensive against the Hamas militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. The fighting, aimed at ending rocket fire from the Palestinian territory. ended in a fragile truce.
“I didn’t make this decision (to leave politics) without hesitating, but I made it wholeheartedly,” he told a hastily arranged news conference, saying he had been wrestling with the decision for weeks.
“I feel I have exhausted my political activity, which had never been an object of desire for me. There are many ways for me to serve the country, not just through politics,” he said, adding that his decision was spurred in part by his desire to spend more time with his family.
Possible replacements include Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief, and Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief and defense minister, who now serves as chairman of the opposition Kadima Party.
As the prime minister’s point man with the United States, Barak was welcomed in Washington as a moderating influence on Netanyahu’s hard line policies toward the Arab world and Iran’s nuclear program.
That alliance saw some rocky times recently with reports the prime minister objected to Barak’s newly moderate tone that Israel should defer to the
U.S. in deciding whether to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.
But the two seemed to have patched up things, appearing to work harmoniously on the recent Gaza campaign.
In a statement Monday, Netanyahu said he “respected” Barak’s decision.