JERUSALEM -- Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, one of the nation's most influential and divisive leaders, said Monday he would not run for a Knesset seat in the upcoming election, ending a political and military career that spanned more than three decades.
The surprise announcement comes in the wake of Israel's eight-day clash with the Islamist militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but was prompted by domestic politics and Israel's scheduled January elections.
Though Barak's sagging popularity enjoyed a bump from the recent Gaza conflict, opinion polls predicted his Independence Party might barely win enough votes to secure him reelection.
His retirement saves him the potential embarrassment of such a defeat and ends speculation over his next political step. Some thought he might join the right-wing Likud Party, but in recent days rumors spread that he might join former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in launching a new centrist political party. Livni is expected to make an announcement about her political future Tuesday.
Even as Barak announced his retirement from political life, he seemed to leave the door open a crack for a return. In keeping with his reputation as a political strategist and survivor, the 70-year-old leader seemed to dodge a question during a news conference about whether he would consider remaining in his Defense Ministry post if requested by the next prime minister, who has the power to appoint a handful of non-elected Cabinet members.
Barak said he was comfortable with his decision and looked forward to spending more time with his family.
"I believe that it is important to make way for fresh faces," said Barak, who in addition to his cumulative seven years as defense minister, also served as prime minister from 1999 into 2001 and as foreign minister. "A turnover in positions of power is a good thing," he said.
One of Israel's most-decorated soldiers, Barak joined politics in the 1990s after serving in one of Israel's elite commando units and then as the army's chief of staff. As chairman of the left-leaning Labor Party, he defeated Benjamin Netanyahu for the prime minister's seat in 1999.
But during his tenure as prime minister, Barak presided over two watershed events in 2000: Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon and then the failed Camp David peace talks. The collapsed peace process triggered a Palestinian uprising that left hundreds of Israelis dead from bus bombings and suicide attacks.
Seen as being too dovish, Barak's government collapsed and he was replaced by military hero Ariel Sharon in 2001.
After a stint in the private sector, Barak returned to politics in 2007 and tried to reposition himself as a centrist. But he ended up alienating the left and the right.
Liberals called Barak a traitor in 2009 for joining Netanyahu's right-leaning government, a move that led Barak to quit the Labor Party two years later and form his own party.
Right-wingers never trusted Barak, fearing he would sacrifice West Bank settlement construction in order to achieve a peace deal with Palestinians. Many conservatives cheered Barak's announcement Monday.
"Today is Likud's independence day," said Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein. "Barak will go down in the history of Israel's governments as the worst defense minster the Jewish settlements have ever had."
Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich praised Barak's contributions to Israel, saying he has "done more for the (Israel Defense Forces) and for the state's security than the public will ever know."
For Netanyahu, Barak's departure _ which is not expected to take place until February when the next government is formed _ means the prime minister will lose an ally on the question of confronting Iran. Barak was one of the few defense officials who appeared to support Netanyahu's threats to attack Iran's purported nuclear facilities.
Barak also served as a moderating influence in Netanyahu's conservative coalition government and an occasional diplomatic envoy to the Obama administration, which has had a rocky relationship with Netanyahu.