Jerusalem (AFP) – Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Monday announced he was leaving politics, in a surprise decision that comes after a decades-long career that saw him also serve as prime minister.
At a hastily-announced press conference at the defence ministry in Tel Aviv, Barak, 70, said he would step down as defence minister when the new government takes office after general elections on 22 January.
“I have decided to resign from political life and not participate in the upcoming Knesset elections,” he said.
“I will finish my duties as defence minister with the formation of the next government in three months,” he added, saying that he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he respected Barak’s decision and thanked him for the role he had played in his ruling coalition government, a statement from his office said.
“PM Netanyahu respects DM Barak’s decision; thanks him for cooperation in government and appreciates his contribution to security of state,” his office said on its official Twitter feed.
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.
Alongside Netanyahu, Barak has frequently warned that Israel could take pre-emptive military action to prevent Iran from going nuclear, although last month he told a British newspaper that the moment of truth had been delayed for “eight to 10 months” until spring or summer 2013.
Ahead of the press conference, political observers had speculated the veteran politician and former head of Israel’s Labour party would announce he was poised to join forces with former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to run on a centrist ticket in the January elections.
Livni stepped down from politics earlier this year after losing her position as leader of the centre-right Kadima party to former defence minister Shaul Mofaz.
But few believed Barak would announce he was quitting political life altogether, in a decision which comes just days after the Israeli military ended a major assault on Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Barak said he would not be contesting the elections in any form and dismissed journalists’ questions about a possible comeback to the political field.
His decision comes after a tumultuous couple of years for the former chief of staff, who had a stellar military career.
In January 2011, he resigned from the Labour party where he had spent his entire political life to set up the Independence party, which he quickly led into Netanyahu’s rightwing government.
He had wanted to take Labour into the coalition in a move which caused a split within the party, with many was opposed to the hawkish bent of Netanyahu’s government.