In English, Lt. General (Res) Ehud Barak’s last name means lightning. As Israel’s highest ranking officer, the retired Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff broke into politics less than two years ago in the footsteps of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. On Sunday, Barak marched into Tel Aviv’s Labor Party headquarters to claim his new title as party chairman, easing into an office space once occupied by Rabin and most recently Shimon Peres.
With tens of the Israeli and Foreign media pressing his doorway, Barak held a round of meetings which seemed more like photo opportunities with his rivals, including MK Yossi Beilin, who won 29 percent of the votes in last week’s Labor primary. Presenting a united Labor front, Barak assigned himself as interim party secretary-general. He made clear that his primary target now is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Barak is leading in public opinion polls.
“The days of the Rabin-Peres feud will not come back,” he declared. “I think that feud was largely responsible for our failure to win back power.”
True to his name, Barak has made a lightning impact on the Israeli electorate, making himself an heir apparent to the nation’s highest office in his first term as a member o the Knesset. However, he remains largely an enigma to the Israeli public. Barak, with is perennial smile and friendly jowls that could soon become a cartoonist’s delight, confuses the public as to where he stands on major issues. When Barak was about to complete his IDF service, the Israeli media was forced to speculate about which political party he would join.
Although new to politics, Barak has mastered the art of ducking direct questions. He answers specific questions with perfunctory answers, and avoids questions about what he would do as Israel’s next prime minister – at times appearing indignant.
A case in point: At Barak’s opening press conference for the foreign press last Fall, free lance writer Joyce Boim, whose son had been murdered on the way home from school, explained that the Arab killer had found refuge in the PA autonomy. Boim asked Barak what he would do in such an instance. Barak expressed little sensitivity when he said that he is not the prime minister, that he should not be asked such a question, and that “you cannot expect the Palestinians to be 100% perfect.”
On June 9, Barak met with his predecessor, Peres, and flew to Jordan as King Hussein’s personal guest. The new chairman expects to meet soon with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. Both are courting the former commando who, in 1973, disguised himself as a woman during a Beirut raid against Palestinian guerillas. In 1988, then head of military intelligence, Barak reportedly commanded the successful operation to assassinate Abu Jihad, top military strategist for Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.
“I perceive Arafat as the real partner, the only partner in the negotiation for peace,” Barak told the Middle East News Service on Sunday at Labor Party headquarters, asked is he now trusts Arafat. “In the past, he headed a terrorist organization. Now with Oslo, we must be careful and not rush into his hands. At the same time, we have to negotiate with him and no one else.”
Barak has met Arafat on three occasions, including when he was foreign minister. During a recent phone conversation, Barak says that he told Arafat that “I xpect the Palestinian leadership to make an effort to stop terrorism.” Asked whether e will urge Arafat to condemn the PA order to murder Arab land dealers who sell propertyto Jews, Barak said: “If the problem is not solved by then, it will be raised.”
Like Rabin, Barak’s reputation as a war hero has helped pave his way to success in politics. After Rabin’s assassination, Barak as foreign minister assumed Rabin’s mantle of “Mr. Security” to compensate for Peres’ perception as being too dovish. At times Barak has demonstrated skepticism towards the peace process. As foreign minister he abstained from voting in the cabinet to approve the second peace accord with the Palestinians in 1995.
Barak’s quest for leadership was evident in his aggressive campaign to force Peres to relinquish even a symbolic role in Labor Party decision making. He is now enlisting Peres’ help in guiding the party to victory at the next elections. Positioning himself in the political center, Barak says he is better qualified to deal with the Palestinians than Netanyahu, whom served in Barak’s military unit. He points out that he has sat in on more cabinet meetings, as chief of staff, than the prime minister.
Barak, whose own core beliefs are in question, has criticized Netanyahu for inconsistency. “Netanyahu has been playing a dangerous game of verbal gymnastics but does not deliver anything real,” he told Middle East News Service. “People expect leaders to have an agenda, to have issues and try to solve them and talk about them in an accurate, coherent and focused way. Netanyahu is emphasizing what the audience prefers to hear at the moment.
“Netanyahu’s policy is destroying the mutual trust that was so carefully nurtured under Rabin and Peres” with the Palestinians, he continued. “In a way, it (Netanyahu’s policy) is cracking the mutual trust we had with the Americans.”
Interestingly, Netanyahu and Barak’s bottom line in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is similar. Barak said in an interview last fall that he supports an expanded Allon plan, almost identical to the one Netanyahu announced last week in his “Allon-plus” plan: expand Jerusalem, annex specific settlement blocs, maintain security positions in the Jordan Valley, no foreign army west of the Jordan River, no right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Barak believes that paralysis on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts is liable to ignite a military confrontation. Opposing a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops from the security zone in Lebanon, Barak says, negotiations must resume on the principle of trading land for peace and security.
Born in 1942 in Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, Barak was kicked out of high school because he could not concentrate on his studies, according to a 1996 article in The New Yorker. Barak later finished his schooling and earned a masters degree in economic engineering systems from Stanford University in the mid-1970s. Barak is also a gifted classical pianist prone to showoff, skilled at picking locks and taking apart grandfather clocks (and putting them back together), The New Yorker reported.
At 17, Barak joined the IDF and was selected for the famed Sayeret Matkal within months, later becoming a commander of the elite commando unit.
During the 1967 Six Day War, Barak commanded a reconnaissance group, and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, headed a tank battalion in the Sinai. In April 1991, he became chief of staff and was promoted to Lt. General, the highest rank in the Israeli military.
In July 1995, Barak was appointed Rabin’s interior minister. He became foreign minister under Peres after the assassination and, days after winning a seat on the Labor Party list, Barak pioneered his campaign for Prime Minister of Israel, the first “outsider” to the Israeli political system to do so since Yitzhak Rabin answered the call back in 1974.