At a dramatic press conference on Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced his surprising resignation from politics after nearly 50 years in service of the country.
"I have decided to resign from politics and I will not be running in the [upcoming] elections," Barak told reporters at his office in the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. "I enlisted to the IDF in 1959 and I served the people of Israel for 47 years as well as I could."
The defense minister reassured reporters that he would remain in his post until the establishment of the next government, following the Jan. 22 elections and then "I will free up time to focus on my family."
"I have exhausted my contribution to politics, which I was never entirely passionate about, and I feel that I must make way for others to man senior political positions. Turnover in positions of power is a good thing," Barak said, explaining the decision that took most Israelis by surprise.
"This decision was not without its misgivings, but ultimately, I am at peace with it," he declared.
"Thus I complete seven and a half years in the Defense Ministry, spanning three governments, one of them under my own leadership," he said.
"During these years, I led a systematic rehabilitation, bolstering the long arm and dealing with the Iranian threat, pushing Iron Dome and the other anti-missile interceptors and ensuring a deep diplomatic and military cooperation with the Americans," Barak said.
"I want to thank from the bottom of my heart the IDF commanders, both in compulsory service and career soldiers, the people of the Defense Ministry and the members of the intelligence community, who allowed me to fulfill my duties as defense minister successfully. I am proud to have led such wonderful people. I want to thank the prime minister and my colleagues in the government, as well as my devoted friends in the Independence Party leadership, who gave me a lot of strength for many years and for long hours," Barak added.
"In the coming three months, we will continue to face every challenge, and I assure you, there will be many," he concluded. Barak also took the time to dispel speculations suggesting that he would join up with other parties, insisting that he would not run in the election. But he also never explicitly said he would not return to politics.
The political echelon did not waste a second before issuing responses to Barak's dramatic announcement, with Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich expressing her sorrow over Barak's resignation even before the press conference ended.
"Barak is the world's most decorated soldier, and one of the most highly regarded defense figures in the international community. He contributed to the IDF and to the security of the country more than the public will ever know," Yachimovich said.
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."
"After Barak realized that he could not secure a seat on the Likud list he understood his irrelevance in the political arena and decided to initiate his resignation, instead of the people forcing it upon him," Danon said in a statement.
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."
On the other side of the political spectrum, Israel's Left was 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."
"There is something symbolic about the fact that Barak, the man who invented the 'no partner' spin, the man who disappointed and failed to sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians, who didn't end the occupation the way we expected him to, is resigning precisely in the same week his 'partner' [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas extends a hand to peace with Israel and seeks recognition of the PA as a state. Now Barak is gone, just when he gets a chance to rectify the historic damage he caused."
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. He will never be able to absolve himself of this historic responsibility. 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 Gaza. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that Barak's resignation was yet another victory for the Gaza terror organizations, Israel Radio reported. He explained that the resignation was proof that Israel's recent Gaza Strip offensive, which Barak led, had been a failure.