JERUSALEM – Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Sunday he would not leave Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government over its handling of the 2006 war against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, but would stay on to redress the problems in the military that the fighting exposed.
Barak's announcement at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting removed any immediate threat to the survival of Olmert's government as it pursues its declared goal of signing a peace treaty with the Palestinians this year. Barak had said before joining the coalition in June that he would push for Olmert's resignation or early elections after a war inquiry delivered its final report.
The report, delivered last Wednesday, left Olmert relatively unscathed, but criticized the government and the army for "serious failings and flaws."
"Why am I staying? I'm staying in the post of defense minister because I know what kind of challenges face Israel -- Gaza, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, the rehabilitation of the military and the political process," Barak said.
If Barak were to have pulled Labor's 19-member faction out of the coalition, Olmert would have been stripped of his parliamentary majority and likely forced to call an election. His coalition now controls 67 of parliament's 120 seats.
But with Labor trailing badly in public opinion polls, Barak apparently decided his party's political fortunes -- and his own -- would be better served by remaining in the government. Barak hopes to reclaim the premiership he briefly held before losing it in early 2001, but polls would hand the race to hawkish opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of the hardline Likud Party.
Given the poll results, his decision to remain in government had been expected.