JERUSALEM // The Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, abruptly announced today that he was quitting politics.
Mr Barak, Israel's most-decorated soldier and one-time prime minister, said that he would stay on in his current post until a new government is formed following the January 22 ballot.
His resignation could mean the departure of the most moderating influence on the hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who holds a wide lead in polls and is expected to win re-election.
Mr Barak, who heads a small centrist faction in parliament, often served as Mr Netanyahu's unofficial envoy to Washington to smooth over differences with the White House.
His impending departure comes at a crucial time for Israel, as the nation struggles to find its way in a region where the old order of Arab autocrats has been swept aside by the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist political parties. Israel also faces a decision on whether to attack Iran's nuclear programme, which it fears is designed to develop atomic weapons – a charge Tehran denies.
Mr Barak led the recent eight-day military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The fighting, aimed at ending rocket fire from the Palestinian territory, ended in a fragile truce."I didn't make this decision [to leave politics] without hesitating, but I made it wholeheartedly," he said, saying that he had been wrestling with the decision for weeks.
Mr Barak evaded questions about whether he might to serve as a cabinet minister in an upcoming government. While most cabinet ministers also hold parliamentary seats, they do not have to be elected legislators, and such appointments have been made in the past.
Mr Barak, 70, made the surprise announcement even as polls showed his breakaway Independence Party gaining momentum after the Gaza campaign.
Despite the bump in the polls, Mr Barak still could have found himself fighting for his political survival once election day rolls around. Surveys before the Gaza operation were unkind to his party, at times showing it polling too weakly to even send a single representative to parliament.
"I feel I have exhausted my political activity, which had never been an object of desire for me. There are many ways for me to serve the country, not just through politics," he said, adding that his decision was spurred in part by his desire to spend more time with his family.
Possible replacements include the vice premier, Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief, and Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief and defence minister, who now serves as chairman of the opposition Kadima Party.