A new Mideast peacebroker
Israelis pick Ehud Barak to revive the peace process and heal their
JERUSALEM — This is not the first time Ehud Barak, the man now forming Israel's next government, has been underestimated.
When he was drafted into the military at age 18, Israel's premier-elect wanted to be a pilot. Baby-faced and bantam, the lisping teenager was informed he didn't have the right stuff for the fiercely competitive air force.
But Mr. Barak went on to become Israel's most decorated soldier and chief of staff, receiving an unprecedented five medals of bravery for gutsy missions he commanded in the Sayeret Matkal, or General Reconnaissance Staff.
Now, Ehud Barak has proved skeptics wrong again. A few months ago, critics doubted he could emit the charisma and cutting sound bites it would take to beat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But about 56 percent of Israelis - a wider-than-predicted margin - voted for Barak on May 17. They hope he can build a broad coalition that will allow Israel to resume peacemaking with its Arab neighbors and heal the internal rifts that threaten to divide the nation along ethnic and religious fault lines.
To be certain, Americans will notice that Barak won't sound like Mr. Netanyahu came to be known worldwide. Barak won't exude as much self-confidence and is unlikely to come across as well on prime-time television. When discussing his concerns about a prime ministerial candidate from the Center Party - who bowed out of the race to pave the way for his victory - Barak compared his competitor to "Rosh Perot."
Back home, one thing Israelis never doubted about Barak was his innate intellect. This is a man who not only mastered military strategy and now politics, but who excels in piano, holds a master's degree in systems analysis from Stanford University in California, and gets a kick out of taking watches apart and putting them back together.
Childhood on a kibbutz
He was born Ehud Brog, adopting Barak - a name with a similar ring meaning "lightning" in Hebrew - while in the army. He spent his childhood with his East European immigrant parents and three brothers on a kibbutz, one of Israel's many communal farming villages. In those heady ideological days, youngsters were raised in "children's houses," living in separate facilities from their parents in an attempt to free women from traditional household chores.
Barak once said in a Monitor interview that living conditions at Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, near the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, were so rustic that he was almost a grown man before he saw a bathtub - as opposed to a nozzle hanging from the ceiling.
Itai Margalit, a close childhood friend, was in a group of about 15 peers who studied and lived with Barak. "He wasn't a leader, because he was the smallest among us. But when it came time to make a decision, we turned to him and said, 'So, Ehud, what do you think?' " says Mr. Margalit, today the economic manager of the kibbutz.
"We had no TVs, so he would read four books a week. He loved to play more than study, so when the teacher called on him, sometimes he didn't have a word written in his notebook. But he had all the answers and could produce a full speech on the lesson nonetheless."
Another kibbutznik of his generation, Yael Aforman, says Barak's logical mind made him stand out.
"He did everything with brains, quietly. When he wasn't tall enough yet to reach the lock on the door, he could figure out how to open it just by looking at it."
That's only a partial exaggeration. Barak did become known in the army as an expert in being able to pick a lock and case a hideout. He pulled off such feats as disguising himself as a blond woman in Beirut and exacting extrajudicial revenge on some of the Palestinians involved in the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972.
That was the year biographer Ilan Kfir - then a newspaper journalist and now author of the bestselling "Barak: Number One Soldier" - first met Barak. Mr. Kfir and another journalist arrived on the dark runway of Israel's national airport, where Barak instructed them to freeze and identify themselves or be shot. Barak was in the midst of trying to save 172 hostages being held at gunpoint aboard a Sabena Airlines plane.
Kfir watched as Barak, disguised as an airline mechanic, cut the plane's fueling system and freed the hostages.
These and other tales of Barak's impressive maneuvers were heavily underscored in the campaign, successfully boosting his image in the eyes of many new immigrants unfamiliar with his long military history.
But even his record of successes and well-known ties to his renowned mentor, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, did not ensure him success in the Labor Party. There, leading intellectuals had been working their way up through the party ranks, while Barak leapfrogged in from the military with virtually no previous political experience.
"They didn't welcome him to the party. He was like a stranger coming to the kingdom," says Kfir. So, in the two years since he climbed to position of party chairman, he used the circuitous strategies he honed in his army years to win over supporters.
"He did a brilliant thing: He built a bypass to the party, a small unit" that in two years had 20,000 volunteers, according to Kfir. For example, he says, Barak would invite taxi drivers for a seminar, during which he would tell them what was wrong with Israeli society and how he would fix it.
But precisely what Barak will do once he's sworn into office remains unclear. He says he'll bring Israeli troops home from south Lebanon in a year. And he's so understanding of the Palestinians' dilemma that he said last year that if he had been one of them, he might have joined a terrorist organization - an easily misconstrued statement that Mr. Netanyahu tried unsuccessfully to use against him in the campaign.
But Barak has grown more tight-lipped on such matters, refusing to be pinned down on almost any of the controversial issues, except to offer vague mantras that Jerusalem would remain united and that the Palestinians must determine their own future.
This may actually make further peace moves easier for him because no one will be able to accuse him of breaking his promises. His mentor Rabin, by contrast, had promised during his election campaign that he would never give up the Golan Heights - words that were thrown back to him again and again.