Why Barak Pulled Out of Israel Coalition

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Ehud Barak, left, and Ariel Sharon during a meeting in Tel Aviv

On Wednesday, Israel's outgoing prime minister, Ehud Barak, decided — once again — to retreat from political life. Barak, who first announced his intentions to abandon leadership of the Labor party on February 6, when he lost a landslide election to Ariel Sharon, had subsequently reconsidered when he was offered the job of minister of defense in a unity government under Sharon. In the end, he withdrew, leaving the defense post open to fellow Labor leader Shimon Peres.

TIME.com: What prompted Barak's latest departure announcement?

Matt Rees: This is just another point on an extended Barak timeline. On February 6, right at the end of a rather long-winded concession speech, Barak said, more or less: "By the way, I intend to resign from the Labor party and the Knesset and take a break from political life." But by the end of that week, he was conducting unity government talks with Sharon. As a result of those talks, Barak was to be defense minister and Peres was to become foreign minister.

This bit of news was met with dismay by other Labor leaders, who had decided amongst themselves that Barak himself was responsible for losing the election. It was him, they said, not his politics. So they were pretty eager for him to leave.

So when Barak announced that he would stay, the egos emerged among the party leadership. And these are phenomenal egos by any standard. Extraordinary backbiting went on, both in the press and behind closed doors. Barak was essentially told, "Look, first you lost the election and you said you were going to go, but you're still here. And second, who are you to decide whether we should be in a unity government, or to decide who should be ministers in that government?

At this point, Barak realized he wasn't going to get his plan through the central Labor party meeting — he knew he would never get those 400 or 500 people to OK his leading the party in a unity government.

So instead of facing a public dismissal, he decided to make a relatively graceful exit. And he can leave saying Sharon didn't give him the backing he needed, and the Labor party machine can chalk up a victory for smoke-filled-room politics for party hacks with very few expectations other than getting a big job. These are people Barak has largely cut out of his government — and this is their revenge.

Will Peres take the job as defense minister? Rees: Probably. He's been defense minister before.

So although some Labor party leaders are pleased by Barak's departure, isn't this really a victory for Sharon?

Rees: More or less. Barak's departure ensures that in all likelihood, Sharon will have the broad government that he wanted and the advantage of a weakened Labor party leadership. It's ideal, really — now the Labor leaders will have to spend all their time fighting over who's going to control the party.