Jacqueline Larma  /  AP file
Ehud Barak, then Israeli Prime Minister, speaks at a meeting of the One Israel political group at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in this November 2000 file photo. Barak announced his bid for a political comeback on Sunday.
updated 1/7/2007 7:06:50 PM ET 2007-01-08T00:06:50

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced on Sunday his much-anticipated return to politics, saying he will seek the leadership of the Labor Party in the first step toward a possible bid for the country’s highest office.

The announcement by Barak, 63, one of Israel’s best-known figures, immediately shook up the race for the top spot in Labor, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s main coalition partner. Labor primaries are set for May.

Barak spent nearly six years in political exile after he was crushed by Ariel Sharon in a 2001 election. The defeat followed a short and stormy tenure as prime minister that abruptly ended after failed efforts at making peace with Syria and the Palestinians.

The former army commando and chief of staff said he would run against the party’s current leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose popularity has plummeted following Israel’s inconclusive summer war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Barak spent months laying the groundwork for a comeback, gaining the support of key members of the party and establishing himself as the early favorite.

The next leader of the Labor Party will also likely become defense minister. Barak’s military pedigree could give him an advantage as Israel recovers from the war while facing a potential nuclear threat from Iran.

In security-obsessed Israel, the defense post could serve as a springboard to the premiership.

Capabilities and talents’
Barak made his announcement in a brief letter to his party.

“The state of Israel, the army and the security establishment are experiencing a major shakeup,” he wrote. “I believe that I possess the capabilities and talents necessary to serve as Israel’s next defense minister.”

Barak served in wars and daring commando raids, becoming Israel’s most-decorated soldier. He retired from the military in 1995 at the end of his term as chief of staff.

Joining the Labor Party, he was quickly appointed to the Cabinet. In 1999, he was elected prime minister, also serving as defense minister.

But his term lasted less than two years — the shortest for an elected premier — and he left office under stiff public criticism for his unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 and his offers of far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians and Syrians that failed to result in peace deals.

Olmert's Lebanon incursion opened door
Political commentator Hanan Crystal said last summer’s war in Lebanon — and the public sentiment that Israel’s military must regain its might — has revived Barak’s political career.

“We need a defense minister, and everyone knows he is more suitable than anyone else,” Crystal said. “He is an authority. There will be a feeling that ’the boss is back.”’

Barak has drawn criticism for his aloof, go-it-alone style which alienated allies and foes alike. But many believe Barak would learn from his past failures, Crystal said.

Barak seemed to acknowledge as much in the letter he dispatched to the party’s secretary-general.

“It’s possible I became prime minister too early,” he said. “I’ve made my mistakes, and my inexperience became my stumbling block,” he wrote.

Barak will face a tough challenge for the party leadership from Ami Ayalon, another former general and one-time chief of the Shin Bet security service.

Ayalon said Barak’s candidacy would allow “a clear choice between a return to the way of the past, which we know well, and a different type of politics of honesty, integrity and responsibility.”

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