At a dramatic press conference in Tel Aviv on Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced his resignation from politics.
Barak said he would remain in his post until the establishment of the next government, following the January 22 elections. While he dispelled speculation suggesting that he would join up with other parties, Barak left the door open for a comeback by not saying explicitly that he would not return to politics. He said he was “at peace” with his decision, but that it did not come “without its misgivings.”
The political echelon responded quickly to Barak’s announcement, with Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich expressing her sorrow over Barak’s resignation even before the press conference ended.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also voiced his appreciation for the outgoing minister, saying, “I thank him for his cooperation and I very much appreciate his longtime contribution to the security of the state.”
But not all the responses were sympathetic. MK Danny Danon (Likud) issued a statement shortly after the announcement, declaring, “Thank God we are rid of this nuisance.”
Likud minister Yuli Edelstein echoed his colleague’s sentiments, saying, “Today is a day of independence for Likud.”
“Barak will go down in the annals of Israel’s governments as the worst defense minister in the history of the Jewish settlement enterprise. His conduct was rife with egotistical and political considerations, all at the expense of the Jewish settlers,” said Edelstein. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, at the first opportunity, he will find a reason to return to politics and to his evil ways.”
The Strong Israel faction, headed by rightists Aryeh Eldad and Michael Ben-Ari, also issued a celebratory response, adding that “now Netanyahu and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman will be able to approve all the construction plans for Judea and Samaria that had gotten bogged down on Barak’s desk. Or, alternately, it may emerge that Barak was only a fig leaf and that it was the prime minister himself who was responsible for the mistreatment of the settlers.”
Some on the other side of the political spectrum were no less critical of the resigning minister. “Barak played a dual role in the political system,” said Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On. “I commended him as the one who normally blocked extreme policies, but sometimes he was the one who spearheaded extreme moves and pushed them forward.”
Hadash Chairman Dov Khenin said, “Ehud Barak was the pillar that made possible the existence of the most extreme rightist government in Israel’s history…. Barak’s political maneuvering cannot mask his culpability for the four difficult years of frozen diplomacy, the damage he caused to the possibility of peace with the Palestinians and the general economic and social deterioration.”
The news even elicited a response from Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, who said Barak’s resignation was proof that Israel’s recent Gaza Strip offensive, which Barak led, had been a failure.
Barak’s political career may have been over even if he had not decided to retire. His small, centrist Independence Party faction was polling poorly and it is possible Barak would not have made it into the next Knesset had he decided to run again.
As prime minister from 1999 to 2001, Barak withdrew Israeli forces from southern Lebanon and offered unprecedented Israeli concessions, including in Jerusalem, to Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians at the unsuccessful Camp David peace summit. In the 2001 elections following the outbreak of the second intifada, Barak was soundly defeated by Ariel Sharon and then resigned as head of the Labor Party.
Barak mounted a political comeback in 2007, recapturing the leadership of a weakened Labor Party. He returned to government as defense minister, a post from which he has emphasized the threat from Iran’s nuclear program and ordered two military operations in Gaza – 2008’s Cast Lead and the recent Pillar of Defense.
– Israel Hayom/JNS; JTA; Jewish Press staff