The next government will no longer be able to “do whatever it wants” and will be limited in pushing its ideology, outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday, a day after Israel held elections for the 19th Knesset.
Interviewed by CNN at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Barak attributed the election results — which returned a weakened Likud to the leadership and empowered the new centrist party Yesh Atid — to the fact that the last government ignored Israel’s masses of social protesters in summer 2011.
Barak, a former head of the Labor Party, served as defense minister in the 17th and 18th governments. Considered an expert on security matters, the ex-chief of staff, a kibbutz member-turned-millionaire, is seen by some as out of touch with Israel’s rank and file.
Barak said that rather than “doing whatever it wants,” the new government “will have to take into account the growing pressure from within” to focus on domestic issues.
Yesh Atid, led by the former TV personality Yair Lapid, shocked the pundits by taking 19 seats in Tuesday voting.
The party, made up exclusively of newcomers to the national scene, campaigned largely on social justice issues, attempting in part to harness the popular anger of the summer of 2011 when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest their socioeconomic condition. The party also focused on the contentious issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the military.
“There is a… joke we [tell] in Israel,” Barak told CNN’s Richard Quest. “One third of the country is going to work, one third is paying taxes, and one third is serving in the reserves… unfortunately it is the same one third.”
Barak said that “this one third” sent a clear election message to the government that it was fed up and wanted to be a part of Israel’s future.
The joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu list, which represented 42 seats in the 18th Knesset, came away battered but breathing Tuesday, garnering 31 seats total. Though the total is likely enough to keep the right-wing slate in power, the showing was seen as a failure on the part of the faction, which campaigned largely on security issues.
In a Times of Israel poll released two weeks before the election, 43% of likely voters surveyed said economic issues were the most important concerns facing the next government.
The right, according to Barak, “did not come to the ballots. The center and left came… en masse and created this new situation, a very interesting one.”
Barak also told CNN that having a new government should not affect Israel’s policy regarding the Iranian nuclear threat.
“The capacity of Israel to act if necessary, even kind of independently, is something that has never been removed from the table and should not be removed from the table.” he said.
Israeli leaders have said they would prefer to act in concert with the US should a military strike become necessary, but have implied that Jerusalem would take action alone should push come to shove.
The peace process with the Palestinian Authority is still also a significant issue, according to Barak. While he believes that finding a way to continue the political process is important, he acknowledged that there is a “a lot of frustration in Israel” as a result of what has happened in the Arab world and “with our Palestinian partners.”
Nevertheless, Barak said “it is not a zero-sum game… we have to find a way to strengthen the moderate part of the Palestinians, namely [Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad and [President Mahmoud Abbas]… to help their future entity.”
Barak, who served as the IDF’s Chief of General Staff 1991-1995, has been in politics since 1995, when he was appointed minister of Internal Affairs by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Since then he has headed several ministries, including Tourism, Immigrant Absorption, Industry and Trade, and Foreign Affairs. He served as prime minister from 1999-2001.
Barak said that he has no intention of accepting any role in the next government. “I’m going to leave political life for at least the next five years,” he told CNN.
An earlier version of this story, based on quotes provided by CNN, incorrectly reported that Barak said Israel “never contemplated taking the lead on Iran.”