Ehud Barak, who over a half-century career became Israel’s most decorated soldier and held the nation’s trifecta of top positions — chief of staff of the military, prime minister and, since 2007, defense minister — announced Monday that he would soon “leave political life,” withdrawing from elections scheduled for Jan. 22.
“I came to this decision not without qualms, but in the end, with a whole heart,” Mr. Barak, 70, said at a morning news conference in Tel Aviv. “I feel I have exhausted the political vocation,” he added. “Change in positions of power is a good thing.”
Mr. Barak could yet be appointed to another term. But his withdrawal from the campaign, coming on the heels of an eight-day air blitz on the Gaza Strip and eight weeks before Israeli elections, highlighted the disarray in Israel’s center-left bloc, where political operatives have been scrambling to organize a credible challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After weeks of deliberation, two other former prime ministers — Ehud Olmert, who has spent recent years battling corruption charges; and the 89-year-old Shimon Peres, now in the largely symbolic role of president — have both apparently decided against making comeback bids.
Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister and head of the centrist Kadima Party, is expected to announce her own re-entry into politics on Tuesday, forming a new party after rebuffing offers to help lead both the liberal Labor Party and a new centrist party called There Is a Future. But analysts say that is unlikely to shift the ground much in terms of taking votes away from the right-wing and religious parties now in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, and that he is the strong favorite to form the next government.
“I think you have fragmentation,” said Mitchell Barak, an analyst, pollster and former aide to Mr. Peres. “There’s no real leader of the left, and even those who are claiming to be leaders of the left, where’s the experience? Israelis like the new ideas, fresh faces, but at the end of the day, they also like to vote for someone who has done something.”
Mr. Barak, who grew up on a kibbutz, was a longtime leader of the Labor Party, though he had formed a close partnership with the conservative Mr. Netanyahu since joining his government in 2009, particularly on the Iranian nuclear threat (it has unraveled somewhat in recent months). Last year, he left Labor and created his own Independence faction, but it has failed to gain traction with voters, with polls suggesting for months that it would likely earn a seat or two at best in the next Parliament. Some observers saw Mr. Barak’s decision as a way to avoid such humiliation, and noted that he could yet retain his post through what is known as a “personal appointment” — prime ministers can choose people outside Parliament — a scenario Mr. Barak declined to address.
“He’s a very popular minister of defense, but a very unpopular politician,” said Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, citing a recent poll that showed 60 percent of Israelis approve of the defense minister’s performance but only 3 percent said they would vote for him.
“By what he did today he maximizes his chances of being the next defense minister,” Mr. Avineri added. “It’s a very convoluted argument. If he got 2 percent, it would be difficult to appoint him. Now he’s not running, it’s easier. He is considered by the Israeli public to be a responsible adult.”
Mr. Barak spent 35 years in the Israel Defense Forces, including as a leader of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, where Mr. Netanyahu was under his command, and he was an architect of the 1976 hostage-freeing raid on Entebbe. He was a short-lived prime minister, from 1999 to 2001, losing his coalition after the failure of the Camp David peace summit meeting with the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and the outbreak of the second intifada.
As chief of staff and as defense minister, he won praise for modernizing the military against new threats, and for massaging Israel’s critical relationship with Washington — one result of both is the United States-financed expansion of the Iron Dome missile defense system that shot down hundreds of rockets from Gaza over the past two weeks. But he is widely criticized as egotistical and manipulative.
“He started taking Israel on the road that ultimately transformed it from a force that was designed to fight large-scale conventional warfare into a force that specialized in antiterrorism operations of every kind,” said Martin van Creveld, professor emeritus of military history at Hebrew University. “As a military commander he was regarded as someone who always backed up his men to the hilt, but as a politician he was rather heartless. He was the kind of man who would strip you of your socks without taking off your shoes first.”
If Mr. Netanyahu does win a third term as expected, top candidates for the defense post — besides Mr. Barak — include Avigdor Lieberman, the ultranationalist foreign minister whose Yisrael Beiteinu is running on a joint ticket with Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud; Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief and Likud member who is now a deputy prime minister; and Avi Dichter, who was recently appointed home front minister.
Mr. Dichter and Mr. Lieberman have generally supported Mr. Netanyahu’s hawkish position on the prospects of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, while Mr. Yaalon has advocated giving diplomacy more time before using force as a last resort. But most analysts said it was too early to start sizing up successors.
“The thing Barak fears more than anything else is to be pathetic,” said Ben Caspit, a journalist who has just finished a critical book on the defense minister, suggesting the withdrawal was mainly to avoid a poor showing at the polls. “In Israel, you never die, people who were declared dead became prime ministers,” Mr. Caspit noted. “He realized he is losing this battle, but he is not out from the war yet.”