Defence Minister Ehud Barak surprised both the political and security establishments when he announced on Monday that he would not run in the forthcoming elections. And, once a new government is formed, he says, he will vacate his office “to allow other people to come in.”
The members of his party, Atzmaut (Independence), were shocked by his decision to give up politics at 70 “to study, read, live and have a good time.”
In recent weeks, the party has been running its election campaign solely based on Mr Barak remaining as defence minister. There were rumours that, because of the parlous position of Atzmaut in the polls, he was holding talks with other parties. Another persistent rumour was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would keep a spot on the Likud list for his old friend. But no one expected a complete withdrawal from politics.
Throughout his 53 years of military and public service, with just one break after losing the prime ministerial election in 2001, Mr Barak has always revelled in springing surprises but he has never even hinted at retirement. Even now, it is far from certain that he is about to depart. When asked by reporters at his Monday press conference if he can rule out the possibility of staying on after the elections as a personal appointment of the prime minister, he answered “let’s talk after January 22.”
“He has taken himself out of the political game but he is still the most senior and experienced defence expert around,” said one senior official at the ministry. “Netanyahu can say after the elections that, in a period like this, Israel needs the best in the nation’s most sensitive position. And the fact that Mr Barak has no political axe to grind makes him even more attractive.”
For such a scenario to take place, the prime minister will have to overcome the objections of conservatives in his own Likud party. They were incensed by Mr Barak’s blocking building plans in the West Bank (though he authorised quite a few) and for preventing the academic recognition of the Ariel College as a fully fledged university.
One such, information minister Yuli Edelstein, said after Mr Barak’s announcement that “this is an independence day for Likud and the nation.”