Ehud Barak: kibbutz-born, famed soldier, Stanford grad

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So just what is known about Ehud Barak — his personality, his background, his governing abilities — now that he will lead Israel?

The prime minister-elect comes with roughly one year's experience in government. He served as Yitzhak Rabin's interior minister and Shimon Peres' foreign minister. He didn't leave much of a mark in either post.

And Barak has a tendency to trust only his inner circle, which could be a distinct disadvantage in a prime minister with such meager experience as a statesman.

Nevertheless, "brilliant" is a word frequently associated with the 57-year-old Labor/One Israel leader and former Israel Defense Force chief of staff.

Like Rabin, his mentor, Barak is known for his analytical mind. Unlike Rabin, he's also known for his voracious reading habits and wide-ranging knowledge.

He can dazzle cabinet members or journalists in a briefing. He has a bachelor's degree in physics and mathematics from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a master's degree in economic engineering systems from Stanford University.

Even more than playing classical piano, Barak's favorite hobby is taking apart watches and putting them back together, said Ilan Kfir, co-author of the recent, highly flattering biography, "Barak — Number One Soldier."

But the flip side of Barak's brilliance is his intellectual arrogance. In Dan Margalit's 1997 political memoir, "I Have Seen Them All," the author wrote that many people who'd held discussions with Barak "got the feeling that he'd already thought over the subject beforehand and made up his mind. Some were impressed by the sharpness of his intellect. Others found it intolerable."

Soon after winning the Labor Party's leadership in 1997, Barak was tagged with the nickname "Napoleon." He had leapfrogged all the veteran Labor politicians — Haim Ramon, Yossi Beilin, Uzi Baram and Avraham Burg — who'd long had their eye on the leadership and now he was shunting them aside. He was instead turning for advice only to his personal inner circle, led by his brother-in-law, attorney Doron Cohen.

However, Barak went on to place his once-disgruntled colleagues into key positions in the election campaign. Burg, whose public war of words with Barak almost drove him to the Center Party, was the campaign's chief mouthpiece. Baram was not far behind. Ramon, who likewise came close to bolting to the Center, was to head Barak's campaign for the June 1 runoff election, which is no longer necessary. Beilin is Barak's emissary to the all-important Arab sector.

"He's managed to implement most of his political program despite some very strong internal opposition," said Itamar Rabinovich, who was ambassador to the United States in the Rabin-Peres government and has been an unofficial adviser to Barak.

Barak was born and raised on Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon.

"The members may disagree on political issues, but everybody agrees on Ehud," said Itai Margalit, economic manager at the kibbutz and an old friend of Barak's.

Margalit could speak of Barak only in platitudes. "He's a true friend, he keeps a close, warm connection with the veterans and the elderly people here. His parents, what great people they are!"

Barak's parents, Yisrael and Esther Brog, immigrated from Lithuania and Poland respectively, and were among the kibbutz's founders in the 1930s.

Like many Israelis, Barak changed his family name during his years in the IDF. Barak is Hebrew for "lightning."

Barak is the eldest of four brothers. He left the kibbutz in his mid-20s. He and Nava, his wife of 30 years, live in the Tel Aviv suburb of Kochav Yair. They have three grown daughters.

Margalit, who is Barak's age, describes his friend's childhood on the kibbutz in idyllic terms. Asked about Barak's personality — was he a leader even then, was he an extrovert or a loner, was he devoted to socialist ideology? — Margalit dismissed the questions for seeking complexity when everything had been so simple.

"We all ran around together, Ehud wasn't a leader. He was just like everyone else, except he had a higher IQ. He had a remarkable memory. But as a person he was modest, a normal guy. There was no question about ideology, our ideology was in our deeds. Ehud was brought up to contribute, in the kibbutz and in the IDF. All of us were."

Margalit confirmed the details of an anecdote from Barak's youth, which illustrates both Barak's early brilliance.

Barak was bored and unchallenged in high school, seemed to pay scant attention to the teachers and rarely participated in class. When planes were flying over, he would wander to the window and watch them. When teachers tried to catch him unaware by calling on him, Barak would nonchalantly recite all the right answers with full explanations, even though he hadn't taken a single note.

By the end of the 11th grade, his kibbutz teachers had had enough and told him, "You'll be promoted to the 12th grade, but you won't be going to this school anymore." He was transferred.

On his way up the IDF ladder, highlighted by his command of the exalted elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, Barak won five medals for bravery, the most ever by an Israeli soldier. He was bold beyond belief, said Kfir, successfully pushing forward in enemy territory, even when it seemed like suicide.

Israel's most-decorated soldier, Barak's military career spanned 36 years until he retired in 1995. He held key command positions in the IDF during the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

As head of the IDF's elite anti-terror unit, he commanded Benjamin Netanyahu in one of the unit's best-known missions — an assault on Palestinian terrorists who had hijacked Belgian airliner at Ben-Gurion Airport in 1972. The soldiers killed the hijackers and rescued all 97 hostages.

A year later, Barak posed as a woman in a raid into Beirut in which three Palestinian fighters were killed.

As IDF chief of staff in the early 1990s, he was involved in Israel's emerging peace negotiations with its Arab neighbors. He helped finalize Israel's 1994 peace treaty with Jordan and met with his Syrian counterpart in negotiations with Damascus. He also oversaw Israel's redeployment in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip under the Oslo accords.

Despite his military edge, Barak has appeared excessively cautious and sometimes indecisive as a political leader.

During the long months when the Wye River accord was touch-and-go and when Netanyahu was refusing the American-Palestinian demand that he give up 13 percent of the West Bank, Barak played it safe. He said only that Netanyahu should arrive at an agreement, but declined to take a position on the heart of the dispute — whether Netanyahu should say yes or no to 13 percent.

Privately, Barak explained that if he backed the 13 percent demand and Netanyahu managed to get an agreement for less, then he, Barak, would end up looking like the weaker negotiator.

The tasks that will face Barak in office require the kinds of hard decisions, inspiring some and infuriating others, that a cautious leader might find impossible to make. Barak will very likely have to enter final-status talks with the Palestinians, who are demanding considerably more territory — including eastern Jerusalem — than most Israelis are ready to give up.

Barak has sought to finesse this problem by vowing to give the public, via a referendum vote, the last word on any final-status agreement with the Palestinians. This would be an unprecedented, unpredictable weakening of the decision-making power of the prime minister, the cabinet and the Knesset.

He also has pledged to get the IDF out of Lebanon within a year of taking office. This would probably require reaching at least a tentative peace agreement with Syria, which is demanding all of the Golan Heights in return. Barak will likely have to make a wrenching, divisive decision to make good on his pledge for peace in Lebanon. Is he up to it?

"I think he's ready for a bold agreement with Syria, which, at the end of the day, means that most or all of the Golan will be given back," said Professor Ehud Sprinzak, a noted Hebrew University political scientist.

"He's convinced that Syria isn't a military threat anymore, and that peace with Syria will vastly improve Israel's position in the region. If Barak does this, it will be a great breakthrough. Nobody will be able to say that he doesn't have vision."

Yet another task for Barak, one he has embraced, is healing the political, religious, ethnic and economic divisions in the country — being prime minister of all the people, as he says.

But if heart-warming slogans and assurances could heal Israeli society, it would have been healed long ago.

Barak will have to make decisions to push forward towards peace with the Palestinians and Syrians, yet without alienating the right. He will also have to satisfy the secular demand for civil freedom without further embittering the Orthodox.

Sprinzak said Barak is perfectly suited for this task, more so than Rabin was.

"I always said that Rabin made a mistake in not showing more consideration for the feelings of the extreme right, and Barak agreed with me," he said.

"He's no great dove, he's a security hawk, a centrist, and that's what the Israeli public wants and needs now. My guess is that he will begin forming his government with the Likud, the National Religious Party, Yisrael Ba'aliya and Center. After this, the only question remaining would be whether he wanted to bring in Meretz or the haredim."

Sprinzak sums up the characteristics that make Barak who he is

"Barak is brilliant, sophisticated, a long-range strategic thinker."

But, Sprinzak adds, "He's not particularly good at human relations. He's alienated a lot of people in his party."

Time will tell which side of Barak the public will see.