Ehud Barak was not a great politician, to put it mildly. His political blunders were abundant.
But his decision to retire now was smart. Barak understood very well that his Independence party, which he formed in January 2011, has a very slim chance of passing the Knesset's electoral threshold. In the best-case scenario, his party will win three or four mandates, allowing him to head a miniscule faction with negligible influence. So he cut his losses to avoid the humiliation.
Barak most certainly had in mind two former defense ministers he has always held in high regard, Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon. Both ran in elections at the head of independent parties (Dayan with the Telem party in 1981 and Sharon with the Shlomzion party in 1977), and both suffered bitter disappointments after winning just two mandates.
With his announcement on Monday, Barak said he wanted to "dedicate more time to my family. I feel I have exhausted politics, which was never a passion of mine." It is too early to speculate whether Barak means what he said, or if he is counting on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form the next government and appoint him defense minister on a professional basis.
That politics were never, in his words, "a passion," was clearly evident throughout his political career. One could say that his only political success was beating Netanyahu for the premiership in the 1999 election race (which was still held on two separate ballots — one for the party and one for the prime minister). Aside from that considerable achievement, he was a failure as a politician.
His government lasted only a year and a half (the shortest tenure of any Israeli government) after he told the Likud leadership, with his typical arrogance: "If you want elections, there will be elections."
He ran for the premiership in 2001 against Ariel Sharon and was defeated. In the elections for the 18th Knesset in 2009 Barak suffered a political trouncing — the Labor party dwindled from 19 seats to a mere 13. A year later, according to polls, the party's strength had plummeted further to 3-4 mandates.
Barak, who had declared that his party would serve the people from the opposition, grew tired of the back seat and signed a deal with Netanyahu to enter his coalition. Meanwhile, he managed to clash with almost every member of his party, who recounted not only his inability to hold a dialogue with them, but his condescending and belittling attitude toward them.
"Nothing interests him other than Ehud Barak and security matters. The party and the Knesset faction aren't important to him at all," one Labor MK told me.
One after another, his party mates fought with him — Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Shelly Yachimovich, Isaac Herzog, Amir Peretz, Eitan Cabel, Daniel Ben Simon and Avishay Braverman. Only after Barak and his four closest Labor loyalists splintered off to create the Independence party and Yachimovich was elected as the new Labor chairwoman did the party begin to rehabilitate itself with the public and garner positive momentum (20 mandates, according to public opinion polls).
Throughout his years of political activity, Barak has also displayed a denigrating attitude toward the Knesset. He rarely gave plenum speeches and usually gave the job of attending parliamentary query sessions to his deputy, Matan Vilnai. On more than one occasion, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin cited him for this practice, but Barak was never deterred and continued to excuse himself from Knesset debates. Even when he did appear in the plenum alongside the prime minister for diplomatic and security discussions, he seemed bored, gazed at the press section and generally looked like someone impatiently waiting for the session to end.
Now Barak has left the members of his faction without a shepherd. Less than two years after he joyfully announced the creation of Independence and promised that "today we are creating a faction, a movement and, down the road, a party that will be centrist, Zionist and democratic," he abandoned his four stunned party mates and essentially sealed their political fates.
If the Independence party with Barak at its helm might just have surpassed the electoral threshold in the coming elections, then the same faction headed by Shalom Simhon has no chance of being represented in the next Knesset.