Israel’s ruling party turns right, defense chief quits

‘WARRIOR-STATESMAN’::Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak said he felt he had ‘exhausted’ his career, as far-right politicians won big in the Likud Party polls

Reuters and AP, JERUSALEM

Wed, Nov 28, 2012 - Page 6

Pro-settler hardliners swept a vote on Monday held by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, effectively tossing four of his closest allies and backers of Middle East diplomacy off a list of candidates for the Jan. 22 election.

Party members ranked candidates on a list for the national poll to determine which of dozens already nominated could actually be elected to parliament.

The top 15 chosen, or those most likely to become or be re-elected as lawmakers, overwhelmingly included ultra-right champions of Jewish settlement on land Palestinians want for a state.

Netanyahu is predicted to win re-election in the national election in two months’ time. However, being surrounded by more hardline lawmakers than previously could toughen his policies on such issues as Iran’s nuclear program and diplomacy with the Palestinians.

Among the winners of the vote were Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon, who is seen as a possible successor to the more moderate Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak.

Barak abruptly quit politics the day of the vote, marking an end to a distinguished and tumultuous career that spanned half a century. It began on a communal farm, led to military greatness and business success and a mixed record in politics that was highlighted by failed peacemaking efforts during a brief term as Israeli prime minister.

Despite polls showing his small centrist Independence Party gaining momentum following the eight-day Israeli offensive in Gaza that he steered, Barak said he would not run again for office in January.

“I feel I have exhausted my political activity, which had never been a special object of desire for me,” Barak, 70, said in a surprise announcement in Tel Aviv. “There are many ways for me to serve the country and society, not just through politics.”

Barak will remain as defense minister until a new government is sworn in after the elections.

Still, analysts predicted that Israel’s most prominent warrior-statesman of his generation had yet to say the last word and was perhaps still angling to keep his job after the election as a special appointment of Netanyahu, who is expected to be re-elected. In recent polls, Barak’s party had been struggling to reach the electoral threshold needed to get into parliament.

Over the past four years, Barak gave the governing coalition a well-known face to deal with the international community and Netanyahu a loyal and seasoned partner.

Former Israeli general Danny Yatom, a longtime Barak confidant, said he will be remembered most for his attempts at peace.

“Barak’s legacy is steadfastly defending the security of the state of Israel alongside a deep understanding that the conflict between us and the Arabs cannot be solved by military means alone,” he said.