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Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak quits politics

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak abruptly quit politics yesterday, potentially robbing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a key ally who enabled his hardline government to present a moderate face to the world.

Barring another comeback by the mercurial former general, his departure marks 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 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 the Jan. 22 elections.

"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 nudge above the electoral threshold needed to get into parliament.

"In his position, he did the smartest thing one could do," said Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "He's not as popular as an electoral candidate as he is a minister of defense. He's not going to say no if he's asked to be the next minister of defense. And he probably will." -- AP

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