Israel's defence minister Ehud Barak announces retirement

Ex-prime minister Ehud Barak gave shock announcement of his retirement yesterday, ahead of January 22 general elections

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 4:52am


Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stunned observers yesterday by announcing his retirement from politics ahead of snap elections in January.

At a hastily-announced press conference at the defence ministry in Tel Aviv, Barak, 70, said he would step down when the new government takes office after general elections on January 22.

"I will finish my duties as defence minister with the formation of the next government in three months," Barak said, adding that he wanted to spend more time with his family.

"Politics is just one way of contributing to the state," he said, while declining to specify whether he might consider a return to government if he were hand-picked for an appointment by Netanyahu.

The prime minister said he respected Barak's decision and thanked him for his work.

The shock announcement comes at a time when the Jewish state has been pushing the international community to pressure Iran over its contested nuclear programme. Israel and much of the West believes the programme is an attempt to build a nuclear weapon.

Ahead of yesterday's press conference, observers had speculated the veteran politician and former head of Israel's Labour party would announce he was poised to join forces with ex-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to run on a centrist ticket in the elections.

But Barak dropped no hint of joining forces with Livni when announcing his retirement, days after the Israeli military ended a major air assault on Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Barak has never rated in the popularity stakes in Israel - one commentator called him "the man everyone loves to hate" - but he has always been known for his cerebral qualities as well as his long experience of fighting Arabs.

As a politician, Barak has had a chequered career. His term as prime minister from 1999-2000 was the shortest in Israel's history. He led the Labour party to electoral defeat against Ariel Sharon in 2001 and then left it to found his own grouping - Independence - last year. But Independence has only four seats in the 120-member Knesset and seems unlikely to perform well in January's elections - which Netanyahu is expected to win easily.

Drafted in 1959, the teenage kibbutznik left the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) 36 years later as chief of staff and its most decorated soldier.

Nicknamed Napoleon by his army friends, the young Barak (Hebrew for "lightning") made his reputation commanding the elite Sayeret Matkal, the general staff reconnaissance unit, which often operates behind enemy lines.

In 1973, Barak, wearing a female wig and high heels, led a commando raid in Beirut during which three senior Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) figures were assassinated in revenge for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The scene was immortalised in Steven Spielberg's film Munich.

As prime minister, he sought to reach a conclusive peace agreement with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, an attempt that culminated in the failed 2000 Camp David summit in Bill Clinton's last days in the White House. That led to the second intifada which in turn brought his resignation in 2001.

Additional reporting by The Guardian