A prominent Israeli general, who subsequently became a politician, once told me: “In our politics there is ‘dead,’ ‘dead and buried,’ and ‘dead and buried and never coming back.’” It is important to keep these distinctions in mind when considering Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s announcement today that he will retire from Israeli political life and not run in the country’s upcoming parliamentary election next January 22.
Barak’s move today most likely reflects more than his professed desire to spend more time with his family. Barak, having broken from the Labor party in January 2011 to form the Atzmaut (Independence) party, today leads a party of just five seats in the Knesset that is part of Netanyahu’s coalition. Polls suggest that Atzmaut may not win any seats in the next election, or only a few at best. Hence, when it would come to forming the next Israeli government, Barak under Atzmaut would bring little if anything to the coalition building table.
Rather than being drummed out of Israeli politics at the polls, Barak today decided to step out on his own terms. But that doesn’t mean he is gone. His political assets are not his political base, which is virtually non-existent, but his reputation as Israel’s most highly decorated general, his standing as a former prime minister, and most importantly, his personal relationship commanding now Prime Minister Netanyahu in an elite commando unit many years ago. Barak and Netanyahu are very close when it comes to issues pertaining to national security and defense. While their political relationship has endured some ups and downs recently, there is little doubt that at its core there is a longstanding relationship of mutual respect.
Barak may be done with electoral politics, but he has positioned himself well to serve, if asked, as the defense minister in the next Israeli government if it is led, as is expected, by a reelected Benjamin Netanyahu. In such a capacity, he would not be beholden to any party or serve in the parliament. He would owe his political life solely to the men who appointed him—Netanyahu and the current foreign minister and Netanyahu’s partner going into the new elections, Avigdor Lieberman. Netanyahu would value Barak’s military and government experience, especially as they near the end game in the struggle to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Politically, Netanyahu and Lieberman may well calculate that having Barak in the position, without a political affiliation, is beneficial to them. It keeps other would-be rivals contained within their own party and prevents them from seeking a more prominent place from which to challenge Netanyahu or Lieberman’s political supremacy.
All this is pure speculation and these could indeed be Barak’s waning days in public service. But Barak left the door open when he reacted to the notion of his possible return as a non-elected defense minister at a press conference today by saying the question was “irrelevant.” Barak’s electoral future may be over for now. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be coming back to government service soon.