Barak’s Retirement Is the End of an Era in Israel

On Monday Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced his retirement from politics, saying. “I feel I have exhausted my political activity, which had never been a special object of desire for me….There are many ways for me to serve the country and society, not just through politics.”

Barak, 70, said he would step down following a vote in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party that pushed moderates out of the ruling party and elevated some of Likud’s most conservative members.

Likud is running in January’s Knesset elections with a coalition partner, Yisrael Beiteinu, led by ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, currently the foreign minister.  If Likud Beiteinu wins, as expected (along with the votes of a couple of Orthodox parties), it would present the most hard-line cabinet since Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud government of the early 1990s.

But unlike then, it has little opposition. The liberal Labor Party—from which Barak defected in 2011—may win only 22 out of the 120 Knesset seats. And Kadima, the centrist ruling party of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, faces oblivion.

Polls indicate that Barak’s small Independence Party may not get enough votes to win any seats in the Knesset. Although one of the toughest supporters of military action against Iran, Barak recently has cautioned that Israel needs US support for any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and appeared to endorse President Obama’s re-election. That could make him an odd man out in what may well be an Israeli war cabinet.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak speaks at Davos early in 2012. Copyright by World Economic Forum: swiss-image.ch/Photo by Monika Flueckiger

The most decorated soldier in Israeli military history, Barak was poilitically a dove when he succeeded Netanyahu as prime minister in 1999. He withdrew Israeli forces from southern Lebanon and most famously nearly negotiated a settlement with PLO leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000.

Barak offered Arafat Palestinian control over 90% of the West Bank and 100% of the Gaza Strip, some sovereignty over Jerusalem and compensation for Palestinian refugees—but no right of return to the state of Israel.

Arafat walked away and never made a counter-proposal. Shortly thereafter, the Second Intifada against Israel began, along with terrorist attacks that killed 1,000 Israelis over the next few years. “I regret that in 2000 Arafat missed the opportunity to bring that nation into being,…” President Bill Clinton later declared.

Barak was defeated by Sharon in a special election in 2001. Sharon crushed the Intifada, stepped up domestic security and built a new fence along the border with the West Bank. He later dismantled settlements and withdrew from Gaza, which Hamas ultimately took over.

Now, Israel faces a revitalized  Hamas in Gaza and an even more formidable Hezbollah in Lebanon,  with longer-range missiles that can hit Tel Aviv.  Iran is speeding up installation of centrifuges in its Fordow underground nuclear complex. The new Israeli government will  have a free hand to deal with Iran. Netanyahu has said repeatedly that the clock is ticking and if sanctions and diplomacy don’t work, he will move against Iran next year.

So, the prospects for war with Iran have increased, and the chances of peace with the Palestinians have fallen from slim to nil. Under these circumstances, Ehud Barak has become irrelevant, and his retirement was simply bowing to the inevitable.

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