Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced on Monday that he would leave political life after the next elections, dropping a bombshell after a career that saw him rise from one of the country’s most highly decorated soldiers to prime minister before falling out of favor and then making an improbable comeback.

His surprise announcement came less than a week after he oversaw Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense assault on Hamas and other rocket-firing terror groups in Gaza, and after almost four years in which he had been Benjamin Netanyahu’s close security partner, working with the prime minister to formulate strategies aimed at thwarting Iran’s drive to a nuclear weapons capability.

Barak, 70 and a nearly constant fixture at the top levels of the country’s political leadership for the last two decades, said he would leave his post as defense minister when a new government is formed, likely in February.

He said he had deliberated for several weeks on the decision and he was proud of his career, which included a stint as prime minister, but it was time to move on.

“I feel there is room now for other people to take up positions in Israel,” he said. “There are many ways to contribute, but the state is not just politics.”

Barak smiled throughout the press conference he called to make the announcement, and said he now wants to spend more time with his family. He noted that the surge in violence in the south and the start of Operation Pillar of Defense delayed his final decision until Monday morning.

“I am comfortable with my decision,” he said. He noted that Netanyahu was aware of his decision, and said his much-reported episodes of friction with the prime minister had not influenced his course of action.

Netanyahu said he “respects” Barak’s decision to retire from political life. Netanyahu thanked Barak for “the cooperation in the government, and greatly esteems his contributions over many years to the security of the state,” according to a statement published by his office.

Barak told the press he would be open to staying on as defense minister in the next government if appointed and said he would always be available to advise future governments on matters of defense and national security.

While non-elected officials can fill nearly all ministerial posts in a “professional” capacity, it is unlikely Netanyahu, who is expected to handily win the next election, will keep Barak on, given likely pressure from the right flank for a more hard-line head of the Defense Ministry.

However, Barak proved a popular defense minister, even if his political fortunes have waned with time. His Independence party, which he formed in a surprise 2010 move in the wake of an internal rift with Labor, was expected to gain three seats at most in upcoming elections, with some polls showing it unable to even cross the threshold to enter the Knesset.

Barak said he supported the remaining members of the party in their campaigns for the coming elections but would not be drawn into predictions or evaluations about those still left in the race. He also remained tight-lipped when asked about the negotiations he has held with other parties and political personalities with whom he has been linked.

Rumors had surfaced that he was in talks with former Kadima head Tzipi Livni to form a new party.

Ehud Barak speaking to the press Monday. (Screenshot/ Channel 2)

Ehud Barak speaking to the press Monday. (Screenshot/ Channel 2)

Other reports over the past several months had Barak joining the Likud party, which would have been a rightward turn for the once-dovish minister, but Likud party members reportedly opposed the deal that would allow him to join.

Ynet had reported that Barak was asked by Netanyahu to resign his post if he planned on joining up with another party.

Barak’s stepping down likely paves the way for former army chief Moshe Yaalon, currently strategic affairs minister for Likud, to become defense minister, as has long been rumored. Current opposition head Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister, may also be gunning for the post.

At once hailed by the left and demonized by the right for being willing to compromise with the Palestinians, Barak proved a polarizing, albeit flexible, leader. His drift toward toward Netanyahu, who is seen as a security hawk, at the end of his career pushed him away from the Labor rank and file.

Right-wing politicians reacted happily to the news of the planned resignation, while there was a more mixed response on the left.

“Today is Likud’s Independence Day,” said Likud Minister Yuli Edelstein, adding that Barak will be remembered in Israel as the “most terrible” defense minister regarding Israeli settlement of the West Bank. “His conduct was one of continuous political and egotistical schemes, and all at the expense of the settlements.”

Barak, considered a military expert with a flair for the unexpected, served as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff before entering politics in the 1990s.

Born on a kibbutz in 1942, Barak was central to the early successes of the IDF’s most elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, and is the most decorated soldier in Israeli army history, having taken part in a number of daring raids that earned him a reputation as a defense stalwart.

He entered politics with the left-wing Labor Party in the mid-1990s and succeeded Netanyahu as prime minister in 1999, serving concurrently as defense minister.

As prime minister, presenting himself as a successor to the assassinated Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, he sought to conclude a permanent peace accord with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, initiating and participating in 2000’s abortive negotiations at Camp David hosted by US president Bill Clinton. Rebuffed by Arafat after offering an Israeli withdrawal from almost all of the West Bank, Barak later said he had “removed the mask” from Arafat, exposing the Palestinian leader as unwilling to agree to the compromises necessary for a viable two-state solution. Nonetheless, Barak remained committed to advancing talks with the Palestinians and was trounced in elections in 2001 by the hard-liner Ariel Sharon, forcing him out of politics.

Following a failed bid for the leadership of Labor in 2005, he eventually won back the post of defense minister under Ehud Olmert in 2007 after rising from the ashes and winning the leadership of Labor for a second time.

After Netanyahu was elected for a second term in 2009, Barak stayed on as defense minister, eventually spinning off his own Independence party once Labor began to drift away from the ruling right-wing coalition.

He built a strong alliance with Netanyahu, even though they differed over the Palestinians, and even though Barak was wary of settlement expansion. They seemed to see eye-to-eye on the imperative for urgent action to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive, although recently they moved apart on the issue, with Barak indicating he believed there was still some more time to see whether sanctions would force the regime to abandon its program.

As he did with Operation Cast Lead four years ago, Barak stewarded the recent Israeli Pillar of Defense assault on Hamas and other terror targets in Gaza following years of rocket fire, and in both cases sought to weaken Hamas’s terrorist and rocket-fire capacity, without ousting Hamas and retaking the Gaza Strip altogether.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.