…Gen. Barak stands ready

Though now a retired Israeli general, Ehud Barak is clearly a man prepared for combat.

Barak — armed with a war hero's background and center-right politics echoing those of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — is the Labor Party's leading contender in the battle to rout Benjamin Netanyahu.

In San Jose last week, Barak bared his verbal artillery.

He accused the current prime minister of playing "tricks" with the peace process, and described any potential of Labor joining Likud in a national unity government as "shameful."

Barak also revived accusations that Netanyahu helped foment the extremist rhetoric that preceded Rabin's assassination by a right-wing, observant Jew.

When national elections take place, Barak expects the Israeli public will use the ballot box as a referendum on the integrity and honor of its top leader. "There will be a contest of character and confidence between the leaders of the two parties," he said Thursday morning of last week.

And Barak is confident he can win that competition.

As for his political ideas, the one that differentiates him most distinctly from Netanyahu is his acceptance of a future Palestinian state alongside Israel.

"We cannot and should not rule over another people…We say controlling 2.5 million Palestinians means we will either be a non-democratic or a non-Jewish state, or both. Netanyahu is still looking for tricks to be in full control," Barak said.

Though the next election for prime minister isn't scheduled until the year 2000, there is a real possibility Netanyahu's government won't survive the current corruption scandal involving the short-lived appointment of an attorney general.

Barak is so sure of Netanyahu's ultimate nosedive over charges of wrongdoing that he isn't interested in forming a national unity government — as some have suggested a weakened Netanyahu might propose — unless there arises a dire security crisis, such as war. He would rather see early elections.

"It would be shameful to join [this] government," said Barak, who was spending two days in the South Bay city to speak at fund-raisers for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Before he takes on Netanyahu, however, Barak first must win the leadership of the Labor Party in internal elections set for June. The party is now headed by former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who plans to step down.

Barak is the frontrunner in polls. His major contender for Labor's top spot is Yossi Beilin, a Knesset member, former Cabinet member and Oslo Accords architect whom many consider too far left to beat Netanyahu. The other two candidates are also Knesset members, former Health Minister Ephraim Sneh and former ambassador to Spain Shlomo Ben-Ami. They are considered longshots.

Wearing a navy suit, dusk-blue shirt and burgundy tie, Barak sits in the corner of a Fairmont Hotel banquet room for a half-hour interview sandwiched between meetings. The 55-year-old Israeli native has salt-and-pepper hair, a friendly handshake, a sometimes self-conscious smile and what one observer describes as "gentle eyes."

Touted in Israel as an intellectual, he manage to squeeze into his responses a talmudic reference to prayer shawls and an allusion to Greco-Roman wrestlers when discussing the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

He is a political newcomer but has risen quickly. After 36 years in the Israeli Defense Force, he retired as IDF chief of staff and a lieutenant general in early 1995. A close informal adviser to Rabin, he officially joined the government in mid-1995 as the interior minister. Following Rabin's assassination that November, Barak replaced Peres as foreign minister.

Last May, he became a Knesset member for the first time.

Though Barak is considered center-right, his acceptance of a future Palestinian state shows to what degree mainstream Israelis have shifted their politics. A decade ago, only those farthest to the left would have publicly voiced such ideas.

Still, he only goes so far, declaring the Labor Party shouldn't make the "self-debilitating" mistake of mirroring either the far-left Meretz Party or anyone with a "guilt complex vis-a-vis the Arabs."

At the same time, he said the main difference between himself and Netanyahu is each man's approach to the Palestinians.

Though Netanyahu has accepted the Oslo Accords as the framework for negotiating with the Palestinians, Barak said that ultimately Netanyahu won't embrace the concept of letting Palestinians determine their future outside the sovereignty of Israel.

Netanyahu has said in the past that a Palestinian entity could be the equivalent of other semiautonomous regions across the world such as Andorra, a tiny co-principality of France and Spain, or Puerto Rico, which is a commonwealth tied to the United States.

"I don't believe in either Andorra or Puerto Rico [as the solution]. They are tricks that won't work," Barak said.

"We need neither apartheid nor Bosnia. And these are the inevitable result of the Likud policies."

Barak said he would prefer that the Palestinians join a confederation with Jordan. But twice he acknowledged that "basically a state will be the result" of the peace process under a Labor government.

Despite his career in the military, or perhaps because of it, Barak doesn't assert as some do that a Palestinian state would benefit Israel's long-term security.

"We need it from either political, demographic or moral standpoints," he said.

This doesn't mean he envisions a Palestinian state with unlimited power. Barak opposes the formation of a Palestinian army, for example.

He also backs the idea of Israel retaining control of the Jordan Valley as a security border and installing early warning stations there, while allowing the Palestinians a corridor to Jordan.

In the final-status talks with the Palestinians, Barak said he supports these proposals:

*Keeping Jerusalem united "under our sovereignty — the capital of Israel. Forever. Period."

*Retaining some of the territory Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

*Keeping most of the settlers under Israeli sovereignty, though not necessarily most of the settlements.

*Coordinating water and other natural resources.

*Banning any Palestinian right of return to Israel proper, though acknowledging that this could not be prevented in the Palestinian state.

Barak refuses to offer more details, stating that to do so would "serve only the Palestinians" at the negotiating table. He wouldn't say, for example, whether he would accept a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis, a West Bank village east of Jerusalem.

Though he is pleased that Netanyahu has accepted some of the peace policies of Rabin and Peres since taking office last year, Barak hopes the Israeli public will recognize what he sees as Netanyahu's hypocrisy.

"Netanyahu in a way is implementing one by one steps that had been defined by him as being on the verge of treason a few months ago — steps that he attacked through intense incitement against Rabin that led ultimately to Rabin's assassination," Barak said.

Netanyahu has argued that his implementation of Oslo is better for Israel's security. But in Barak's eyes, if leaders are going to implement Labor's ideas, those leaders might as well be from the Labor Party.

"In my judgment…we should put our mouths where our hearts are," he said.