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Israeli defense chief Barak quits politics -- but for how long?

Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday announces that he is quitting political life after a decades-long career that also saw him serve as prime minister.
Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday announces that he is quitting political life after a decades-long career that also saw him serve as prime minister.Roni Schutzer / AFP - Getty Images

News analysis

TEL AVIV, Israel — Internet forums in Israel sprang to life when Ehud Barak made his surprise announcement that he would retire from politics in eight weeks. The overwhelming sentiment on Ynet and other newspaper forums — good riddance. 

But the key question is, does he mean it? Consider his background.

Israel’s most decorated soldier, universally recognized as a brilliant special forces officer, in the army for 36 years. When he went into politics he became foreign minister within two years, then prime minister and now defense minister.

And he’s 70 — not at all old in Israeli politics.

Now think of the reasons he gave in his press conference to end his spectacular career in Israel’s military and political power centers: to spend more time with his family. "I want to study, write, live and have a good time," he said.

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Barak has already earned considerable wealth through lectures and business consulting, and has a reputation among Israelis for enjoying the high life. So much so that to counteract that reputation, which he feared would hurt him in the polls, he sold his apartment in the plush Akirov Towers in Tel Aviv and bought an apartment in a more modest new building.

But that was in March when retiring from politics must have been the last thing on his mind.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Ehud Barak visit Israel's northern Israeli border with Syria on November 14 in an image provided by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO).Kobi Gideon / GPO via Getty Images

At the time he wrote on his Facebook page that his older home “gives a sense of alienation and detachment from the public and so we decided to move to a smaller and less expensive apartment.”

So the idea that Barak would decide to devote the rest of his life to having “a good time,” just when Israel faces one of its most momentous decisions ever -- whether or not to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities -- and as Israel faces numerous military challenges, from Gaza to Hezbollah, to Iran and Syria, rings false to some analysts.

The real reason for the dramatic announcement, one political source said Monday, is that the party Barak founded in January this year, "Independence," is set to get trounced in the elections scheduled for Jan. 22. Barak would rather leave while on top, leaving the door open to a future return to politics.

Israel's military said it had accomplished its objectives while Hamas claimed victory after the two sides exchanged deadly airstrikes and rocket attacks for over a week.Bernat Armangue / AP

Barak came out of last week’s mini-war with Hamas in Gaza looking good. He was seen as the restraining hand, the responsible adult, in Israel’s leadership trio of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and himself as defense minister. Israel set modest goals and achieved them with minimal loss of life at home.

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So why retire now? The answer is that the announcement came as a surprise and it is too early to know.

One thing is for sure -- few here think he means it.

Martin Fletcher is the author of "The List", "Breaking News" and "Walking Israel".

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