Ehud Barak's shock departure strengthens Israel's hawks
Netanyahu's defence minister wants more time with his family – or does he have another agenda?
THE shock retirement from politics of Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, removes the main moderating influence on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a time of great uncertainty in the region.
The Daily Telegraph's Con Couglin says Barak's decision to step down, taken just days after the establishment of a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, is a serious blow to anyone who "wants to see the Jewish state take a rational and reasonable approach to global security issues".
The former soldier and one-time Israeli prime minister took a "hawkish" stance on matters of security, says Couglin. But he always did what he believed was in "Israel's national interest", something that is not always true of some hardliners in the current government.
Barak, who became defence minister in 2007 and served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, will not stand for a seat in the 22 January general election, but will remain as defence minister until then. "I have exhausted politics and I want to dedicate more time to my family," he said.
That explanation will not satisfy those who believes that Barak, even at the age of 70, is still determined to return as prime minister at the head of a new centrist bloc. As the Los Angeles Times reports, there have been rumours that he might team up with former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who is expected to make an announcement about her future as early as tomorrow.
As the Israel paper Haaretz wrote this summer, "Barak returned to politics five years ago, not to sit in the Defence Ministry forever but to return to the prime minister's seat".
While Barak often acted as Netanyahu's unofficial envoy to Washington, helping to smooth over differences between Israel and the US, the relationship between the two men has never been easy.
They have reportedly clashed over the issue of whether to defer to the US on any attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. And as Haaretz wrote – before the recent Gaza conflict, it should be noted - "Barak thinks Netanyahu is a weak, paralysed leader, running in place and constantly looking around like a weathercock for what the public wants to hear.
"What Netanyahu thinks of the defense minister is unknown. It is only clear that he humiliates Barak at every chance he gets. Netanyahu has consistently ignored Barak's advice on state affairs."
Whether Barak has a final trick up his sleeve, or has genuinely realised after a second Gaza conflict that he would rather withdraw from frontline politics, the coming days will tell.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee, told CNN that Barak's resignation "signals recognition of the futility of the military approach in the adoption of violence as a means of dealing with the Palestinians".
BBC correspondent Kevin Connolly says Barak believes this month's military offensive on Gaza was a successful note on which to end a long career.