JERUSALEM (FILE - 1994) (ORIGINALLY 4:3) (CH.2) - Defence Minister Ehud Barak, a major architect of Israel's policy towards Iran's nuclear programme, said in a surprise announcement on Monday (November 26) that he was quitting politics and would not run in a January 22 election.
Opinion polls had predicted a poor showing for the small party that 70-year-old Barak currently leads, Atzmaut, but recently indicated voter support had strengthened after Israel's eight-day offensive in the Gaza Strip ended in a truce on Wednesday (November 21).
He has been defence minister since 2007 and served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001.
In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he "respects Defence Minister Ehud Barak's decision and thanks him for his cooperation in the government and highly appreciates his long-standing contribution to the security of the state".
Barak's decision to call a news conference, with only two hours' notice, had touched off speculation he might announce the formation of a new centrist bloc to challenge Netanyahu's frontrunning, right-wing Likud in the upcoming ballot.
Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have been widely touted as possible candidates to lead such a bloc. Neither has announced their intentions, with only Livni widely expected to run.
Barak had been at the forefront of Israel's campaign for stronger international sanctions against Iran to halt what Israeli and Western leaders fear is a drive to produce nuclear weapons, allegations Tehrandenies.
He has cautioned that Tehran was nearing a "zone of immunity" that would put deeply buried and fortified nuclear facilities out of reach of Israel's military capabilities, stoking international concern it could opt to strike Iran.
But last month, Barak told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper that an immediate crisis was avoided when Iran chose to use more than a third of its medium-enriched uranium for civilian purposes earlier this year.
He told the paper that the decision "allows contemplating delaying the moment of truth by eight to ten months".
Israel's most decorated soldier and Netanyahu's former commander in an elite commando unit, Barak tried unsuccessfully to make peace with both the Palestinians and Syria during his time as prime minister.
He also said that he had promoted the development of Israel's missile interception systems, which saw action in the recent Gaza fighting and could be key to any future hostilities with Iran or Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
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