Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak is quitting his current job as Defense Minister of Israel and says he will give up politics altogether following January's elections. Barak said today that he has been planning to make the decision for weeks and the choice to resign was not influenced by the recent week-long military offense in Gaza. He will continue serve until a new government is formed following the general election early next year.

The announcement was a bit of surprise given that the recent conflict in Gaza has actually given Barak and his Independence Party a boost in popular opinion polls, though they were still struggling to make headway in Israel's fractured multi-party system. His decision to step down also raises big questions about the future of Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu. The more conservative Netayahu is expected to remain in power following the January elections, but Barak has served as an important centrist counterbalance to the current prime minister, particularly when it comes to the debate over a possible attack on Iran's nuclear program and Netanyahu's sometimes troubled relations with the United States.

One of Israel's most decorated military heroes, Barak was personally involved in some of the country's most famous commando operations, including the assassinations of several members of the Palestinian terrorist cell Black September (which carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.) He became a leader of Israel's Labor party in the 1990s and served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, before being ousted in favor of another military hero, Ariel Sharon. He spent several years out of political office, but remained a highly-sought adviser on international affairs and he returned in 2005 to head the Labor party once again, before breaking away last year to join forces with Netanyahu. That previous comeback might lead some to believe that no politician ever really "leaves" politics, but Barak would certainly be walking away at a high-water mark of respect and admiration. The current head of the Labor party, Shelly Yacimovich, said today that Barak "has done more for the IDF and for the state's security than the public will ever know."