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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Gruff and very tough

Israel bets that an enigmatic ex-commando can make peace and heal the nation's religious divisions

By Lisa Beyer/Jerusalem

May 24, 1999
Web posted at: 10:28 a.m. EDT (1428 GMT)

TIME magazine

James Carville couldn't take his eyes off his client's small, pudgy hands. A killer's hands. "I couldn't, like, concentrate," the American political consultant recalls of his initial encounter with Ehud Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier and its new Prime Minister-elect. "I just kept wondering how many people he'd killed." By the time they met again to launch his campaign, Carville had a different question in mind: How would they make candidate Barak, legendary commando and former army chief, equally lethal in politics?

Last week's stunning election results prove they figured it out. Once an ill-adapted politician disparaged in his own Labor Party, Barak learned to be a masterly contender, trouncing Likud incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been mythologized as invincible. In the balloting, Barak took 56% of the vote, an outlandish majority in a country where the two main parties traditionally just about break even.

Barak's mandate, combined with the voters' choice of a center-left majority in parliament, gives the incoming Prime Minister considerable authority to reverse Netanyahu's policies of division and obstruction and energetically pursue peace settlements with Israel's Arab neighbors. Those neighbors breathed a sigh of relief at Netanyahu's defeat but gave no whoops of joy for a former general's victory. Top officials at the White House and State Department were cautious with their celebrating as well. Though Barak is less hawkish than Netanyahu, he is a carnivore nonetheless. And amid Israel's angry divisions, he will have no easy ride. The promise of a new era has been raised, but few are certain that the enigmatic, untried Barak is the man to lead the Middle East to it.

BARAK'S To-Do List

--BUILD a solid, inclusive governing coalition
--WITHDRAW Israeli troops from south Lebanon
--NEGOTIATE a final peace with the Palestinians
--RESUME land-for-peace talks with Syria
--PARE DOWN privileges of ultra-Orthodox Israelis
--ATTRACT investment to invigorate the economy

The communal farm where Barak, 57, was raised bred into him the kibbutz movement's tradition of being at once leftist and militant, aggressively prepared to make either peace or war as circumstance dictated. For most of Barak's life, it was war. He was an unlikely warrior, tiny, uncoordinated and a bit of a nerd. His younger brother Avinoam recalls that kids hated playing soccer with Barak because he'd kick them instead of the ball. He preferred piano lessons, a highfalutin pursuit in the sweaty world of the kibbutz, and is still an accomplished musician. In school he resisted discipline but compensated with wit. Once asked by a teacher to read aloud his homework assignment, Barak delivered a clever essay from a blank sheet of paper. Bored by high school, he was kicked out in his senior year for truancy and earned his diploma in the army.

When he entered the army at 17, the baby-faced Barak was just 5 ft. 4 in. tall and not yet shaving. (He grew 3 in. but never lost the baby face.) His sharp mind won him a place in the most elite of commando units, the Sayeret Matkal, where his bravery, innovation and navigational skills soon made him a military hero. Avinoam, who served in the same unit, recalls a time in the 1960s when Barak was leading troops on a mission inside Syria. They discovered that the locals were waiting in ambush, and Barak's commander in Israel ordered a retreat. The little commando switched the radio off, completed the assignment and returned safely home.

Taking a break from the army, Barak earned a bachelor's degree in physics and mathematics at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. To make some spending money, he worked for a time as a private eye, specializing in cheating husbands. It was on campus that he first dated his future wife, Nava Cohen, now an English teacher. Sitting in the library beside her while they both listened to music on headphones, he handed her the movie listings with a question mark drawn at the top. She replied with an exclamation point inked over her choice. Today they have three daughters.

Barak went on to obtain a master's in systems engineering from Stanford University. As is customary when an Israeli goes abroad, he chose a Hebrew replacement for his East European surname, Brog. Barak had the appropriately militaristic meaning of "lightning," but because of a speech defect that turns his r's into w's, he cannot quite pronounce it.

In 1971 the 29-year-old was chosen to lead the Sayeret Matkal, and began a string of daredevil heroics. The next year, he and Netanyahu were among the special forces who donned maintenance workers' white overalls to storm a Sabena airplane hijacked en route to Tel Aviv airport. Long fascinated by mechanical devices, Barak skillfully picked a lock to open the airplane door. In 1973 he dressed as a woman to infiltrate Beirut with a unit that assassinated three leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He was a commander of Israel's famous 1976 operation to rescue hostages at Uganda's Entebbe airport. Most of his exploits remain classified. In all, he earned five citations for bravery, more than any other soldier in Israeli history.

Barak was less appreciated for his unconventionality. When he was a junior officer, one of his soldiers was disabled by a broken leg, so he substituted Avinoam to fill the roster and complete a month of desert maneuvers, even though his brother was underage and not yet inducted into the army. As a general, Barak won a mock battle with another division by sending scouts to the rival camp the night before to steal their communications gear.

Eventually, the unorthodox commando rose to be head of military intelligence, then deputy Chief of Staff, before taking full charge as army chief in 1991. When Labor's Yitzhak Rabin, himself once Chief of Staff, was elected Prime Minister in 1992, he began to groom the like-minded Barak as his successor.

Both men were sick of belligerence. Says Barak: "People who experience fighting personally tend to calibrate more carefully what it means to be in a permanent state of war." The two soldiers agreed that peace accords, not the continued occupation of Arab land, were ultimately the best safeguard for Israel's security. In contrast to the ultra-vigilant Netanyahu, they shared a confidence in the country's strength. Barak once said Netanyahu saw Israel as a "carp among barracudas" while he saw it as a "benign killer whale."

Even while seeking friends, Rabin and Barak never shirked from striking enemies hard. Barak likes to call it "killing the mosquitoes while draining the swamp," and his army packed a powerful swat. To suppress the Palestinian uprising against occupation, he sent undercover units into the West Bank and Gaza Strip to hunt down underground leaders; human-rights groups called them death squads. To quell terrorist attacks, he supported the 1992 deportation to Lebanon of 415 Palestinian Hamas militants, a harsh collective punishment that inflamed international opinion and was in time reversed. In 1993, as part of Israel's unavailing struggle to crush south Lebanon's Islamist militia Hizballah, he launched Operation Accountability, ruthlessly flattening Lebanese villages and killing 127 people.

Six months after retiring from the army, in 1995, Barak entered politics as Rabin's Interior Minister. When Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing zealot that November, Shimon Peres, the successor, quickly made Barak Foreign Minister. But the moment Peres lost to Netanyahu in the 1996 election, Barak jumped in to take over as party chief, rankling Labor leaders, who regarded the former general as an upstart.

Labor's Old Guard also chafed at his abrupt, high-handed style. In an early miscalculation, Barak summarily fired half the staff at headquarters without consulting anyone. When the pink-slipped employees barricaded themselves inside the building, he was forced to back down. His arrogance had been an annoyance in the military, where detractors dubbed him "Napo," for Napoleon. In the political world, there was less tolerance. One Labor figure publicly called Barak a "dictator"; another said he had "delusions of grandeur."

Barak was no great hit with the public either. In small settings, he could be charming and light. But in crowds he bored audiences with stiff pontifications. Commentator Larry Derfner wrote in the Jerusalem Post that Barak came across as a "potato," an impression that stuck. When the candidate finally did blurt out something sexy, it was a gaffe: he said that if he'd been born Palestinian he probably would have joined a terrorist organization.

As Israel's leader, Barak's biggest liability may be his lack of empathy--that Clintonesque ability to connect with others. He can be famously detached, recalls Doron Cohen, his brother-in-law, who served under Barak in the Sayeret Matkal. The first time he sent Cohen off on a cross-border raid, Barak accompanied the infiltrators to the frontier, but, says Cohen, "Ehud wouldn't tell me one personal word. I understood this was business. There was no room for gestures." Yet when the forces returned safely, Barak rushed over to Cohen to hug him. "He's so targeted, so cool," says Cohen. "But after all, he's very human."

He will need to display that hidden side if Israelis are to unite behind a renewed peace process. Washington, eager for a foreign policy success before Clinton leaves office, especially against the grim backdrop of Kosovo, will urge the parties to speed toward new agreements. Barak wants agreements too, but on his terms. He has pledged to withdraw Israeli forces from south Lebanon within a year, but he rejects the notion of a unilateral pullout. He is ready to do a deal with Syria on returning the Golan Heights but hangs tough on demilitarization and full normalization of ties.

Unlike Netanyahu, Barak has said he has no objections to the creation of a Palestinian state. Still, he would impose limitations that are unacceptable to the Palestinians: annexing large chunks of the West Bank containing Jewish settlements; refusing to share Jerusalem. The Palestinians regard him dubiously. Senior officials recall that in the early days of peacemaking, he, unlike a number of other Israeli generals, declined to meet them. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has met Barak three times, has complained that he is "just a cold fish."

That coolness is partly a reflection of Barak's unsentimental approach to peace. Rarely has he addressed the Palestinian people directly or acknowledged their rights and aspirations. Says a close aide: "It's not about granting the Palestinians justice but about promoting our own interests." Even for Rabin, the dry, old combatant who could hardly be accused of excessive emotion, the negotiations weren't just about that. While he acted principally out of Israel's interest, Rabin had concluded that the peace process was also a moral imperative. But he was at the end of a long career, confident in his vision and prepared to take risks to achieve it. Cocky though his protege may be, Barak is just starting out.

--With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Jerusalem, Scott MacLeod/Cairo and Douglas Waller/Washington


Cover Date: May 31, 1999

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