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Israel

Barak surprises Israel by quitting politics

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has announced that he is quitting politics. His surprise move precedes Israel's January election. Barak had been a lead figure in Israel's eight-day offensive against Gaza militants.

Barak told an abruptly-called news conference in Tel Aviv on Monday that he wanted to spend more time with his family. He said he would retain his defense portfolio until a new government was formed after January's election.

"I want to dedicate more time to my family. I feel I have exhausted dealing with political life, which has never been a passion of mine, and I feel there is room to allow other people to serve in senior roles in Israel," he said.

Barak has been Israel's defense minister since 2007. He was a key player in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition government, with its tough stance on Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions and continued settlement building in the Palestinian territories. From 1999 to 2001, Barak was the Israeli prime minister.

In an initial reaction on Monday, Netanyahu said he respected Barak's decision and thanked him for "his contribution to security of state."

Small faction

Opinion surveys had predicted a poor showing for Barak's party, Atzmaut (meaning "Independence"), which currently has five seats in the 120-member Knesset. Voter support for Atzmaut had grown as a result of Israel's latest offensive in Gaza.

The conflagration ended in an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire last Wednesday, after the loss of 167 Palestinian and six Israeli lives.

In September, Barak had suggested that Israel should pull out of much of the occupied West Bank if a peace deal with the Palestinians remained out of reach. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2010 over the issue of Israeli settlement building.

Barak formed Atzmaut in 2011 after breaking away form Israel's center-left Labor Party, whose members had objected to being drawn by Barak into the governing coalition shaped by Netanyahu's hawkish policies. He had led Labor for much of his political life.

Until Monday, Atzmaut's poor showing in opinion polls had raised speculation that Barak might try to boost his party's profile to win over centrist voters.

On Sunday, Netanyahu's ruling right-wing Likud party ran an internal primary ballot to choose its frontrunners for January's national election. Those results are still pending, after party officials officially extended the voting through Monday, citing "many computer failures."

ipj/msh (Reuters, dpa, AFP)