Great Expectations

Can a tough ex-soldier who loves the arts bring peace to Israel? Ehud Barak will try

Eric Silver May 31 1999

Great Expectations

Can a tough ex-soldier who loves the arts bring peace to Israel? Ehud Barak will try

Eric Silver May 31 1999

Great Expectations


Can a tough ex-soldier who loves the arts bring peace to Israel? Ehud Barak will try

Eric Silver

In 1976, Col. Ehud Barak delivered a eulogy for a comrade who was killed in the daring rescue of a hijacked planeload of passengers at Entebbe airport in Uganda. Afterwards, a popular Israeli poet, Haim Guri, predicted: “One day, this man will be prime minister.” It was not the first time Ehud Barak had been the subject of great expectations. Years earlier, when Barak graduated from his first officers training course with distinction, the chief of staff at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, said: “If this boy doesn’t make chief of staff, there’s something wrong with the system.” Moshe Dayan, the skeptical, eye-patched hero of the 1967 Six Day War, added: “He’s too good to be true.”

Good or not, Barak has turned out to be true. He made chief of staff in 1991, and last week voters proved the poet’s words right as well. Such is the intertwining of politics and war in Israel that the incumbent whom Barak toppled in a landslide was Binyamin Netanyahu, younger brother of Yonatan Netanyahu, the man Barak had eulogized in 1976. But despite the strength of Baraks victory for the prime ministership—56 per cent to 44 per cent in

a straight two-man fight—he will need all the skills his mentors saw in him to keep a divided country together and to get the peace process with the Palestinians back on track.

Like Rabin and Dayan, the 57-year-old Barak will always be seen as a soldier turned politician. But he brings a broader, more trained intellect to the premiership than most men in uniform. After the 1967 war, he took a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and a master’s in systems analysis at Stanford University in California. He is an accomplished classical pianist. Acquaintances say he can talk as knowledgeably about the novels of Dostoyevsky and Proust as about those of the modern Israeli masters Amos Oz and A. B. Yeshoshua. The eulogy he delivered for Yonatan Netanyahu is taught in Israeli high schools for the richness of its Hebrew language. At home, he jogs, likes a good cigar and an occasional drink. His wife, Navah, teaches English (they have three grown-up daughters).

Barak’s political credentials, however, are less certain. He has had only brief experience in govern-

ment, outside the armed forces. When he hung up his uniform in 1995 after four years in the army’s top job, Rabin brought him into his cabinet and tapped him as heir apparent. He served a short time as interior minister, then became foreign minister after Rabin’s assassination in November that year. Following Netanyahu’s defeat of Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, in 1996, Barak was elected leader of the Labour Party.

He fought this year’s gruelling five-month campaign for the May 17 election like a general. He hired a team of American campaign advisers, led by Bill Clinton’s Democratic attack dog, James Carville, but the candidate “was at the heart of every decision,” says member Robert Shrum. The campaign was carefully focused. Barak selected his targets and stuck to them—disaffected Russian immigrant voters, and the bluecollar Sephardim (Jews from Arab countries) who had voted for Netanyahu in 1996, then found themselves unemployed. He refused to be diverted by enemy fire. If he made mistakes—such as waiting 24 hours before repudiating a comedian who insulted Netanyahu voters at one of his meetings—he corrected them. If a barb needed answering, he responded—

briefly and in his own fashion. He chose the turf and stayed on it. “He’s a man of his word,” says an old friend, military commentator Ron Ben-Yishai. “He thinks very fast and tends to rely on himself. But he reacts slowly. He’s a calculator, a tough guy. It is very difficult to pressure him.”

Barak was born of pioneering kibbutz stock in Mishmar Hasharon, where his parents still live. As a boy in that collective village between Tel Aviv and Haifa, he won a legendary lock-picking contest—an early testament to his fascination with problems and his talent for solving them. He is intrigued by old-fashioned clocks.

In the army, he served in, then commanded, the top special operations unit, the General Staff Scouts. As Israel’s most decorated soldier—a record his television campaign spots highlighted relendessly—he won the Distinguished Service Medal and four citations, some for missions still classified. His known exploits read like movie treatments. In May, 1972, he led a squad, disguised as white-overalled maintenance men, who stormed a hijacked Belgian airliner at Tel Aviv airport. A month later, he and his commandos snatched five Syrian intelligence officers, on a tour of inspection in southern Lebanon,

as a bargaining counter for Israeli prisoners of war. The following spring, dressed as a buxom woman tourist with a brunette wig, Barak led a hit team that landed in Lebanon from the sea and killed three Palestinian leaders in their Beirut apartments.

From the special forces, he went on to command an armoured division and the intelligence corps. Subordinates dubbed him “Napoleon,” a reference not just to his stocky build, but to his supreme selfconfidence and intolerance of those who failed to measure up to his standards. “He is very demanding,” says Amos Gilboa, Baraks deputy at military intelligence. “If he sees people handle things loosely or against his directives, he will come down on them without mercy.”

As a civilian politician, he has learned to seek advice. Unlike Netanyahu, who lost patience with his American strategist, Arthur Finkelstein, Barak continued to listen to his imported experts. “He is enormous fun to work with,” says consultant Shrum. “He doesn’t do things just because somebody says so. He listens, but he challenges you. He is very tough-minded.” On the campaign trail, Barak learned to glad-hand the voters, if not quite to kiss their babies. Ben-Yishai, who served

with Barak as a young officer and studied with him at university, explains: “He was never an emotional person. But once he saw that it was important to hug people if he wanted to win, he became one.” Similarly, the strictly secular Barak has started quoting Jewish texts, something his friends say he never did before. He is courting religious parties in an attempt to build a government of national reconciliation. “He quotes the Bible, and quotes it fluently, because he thinks he needs it,” says Ben-Yishai. “It’s an instrument, but he’s not a liar. He has always respected the Jewish tradition.” In fact, Barak does not need Israel’s three religious parties to build a stable coalition, even though they boosted their share of the 120-seat Knesset to a record 27 seats from 23. He could manage comfortably with a combination of left and centre parties, and win points among his own voters for doing so. Netanyahu, who did need the religious parties, provoked a backlash at the polls by yielding to almost all their demands to fund their seminaries and exempt their students from compulsory army service. Israel’s secular majority, as many of them put it, took back their own country on May 17. Tommy Lapid, a tabloid columnist and televi-

Aid from a good ol’ spin doctor

Ehud Barak knew he was about to win Israel’s May 17 election when his chief American strategist, James Carville, announced four days before polling day that he was flying home. The private surveys were so good that he was no longer ; “The game is over,” Carville told his associates in his sharp southern drawl,

“and I’m out of here.”

The Carville team was adding Barak to its shelf of trophies: Bill Clinton in the United States, Tony Blair in Britain and Gerhard Schröder in Germany. Ever since the bald, trash-talking Carville gained fame for his 1992 Clinton catchphrase, “It’s the economy, stupid”—and for TV appearances with his wife, Mary Matalin, a top strategist from George Bush’s rival Republican campaign—his services have been in demand around the world. In Israel, Carville squared off against Republican consultant Arthur Finkelstein, hired by embatded prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Barak’s key decision came at the start of the campaign. The Labour challenger asked Carville to focus on social and economic issues, not just peace and security, the tradi-

tional staples of Israeli elections. Focus groups backed the judgment. The voters felt more safe (thanks, ironically, to Netanyahu’s success in reducing terrorism), but blamed the incumbent for unemployment and empty shops. “By the end of the first week,” said Robert Shrum, a member of Carville’s team, “the security issue was setded.” Then, Barak and his team pummelled Netanyahu unwaveringly on down-home issues like education and the economy.

Netanyahu, by contrast, was running scared as the polls and the media turned steadily against him. There were reports from inside the Likud camp of late-night screaming matches, with Netanyahu, backed by his wife, Sara, dictating tactics—and changing them from day to day. Bitter disagreements were reported between Netanyahu and Finkelstein.

Netanyahu’s biggest mistake was to fight the 1999 campaign as if he were still fighting 1996. His television ads featured buses blown up by Palestinian suicide bombers under the previous Labour government. He didn’t notice, until too late, that the voters had moved on—and that James Carville was waiting for them.

Eric Silver

sion commentator, won six seats at the head of a splinter group that fought on a stridently anti-clerical platform. Other secular parties also gained, although Labour fell by eight seats to 26, and Netanyahus Likud bloc dropped to 19 from 32.

Barak, however, has pledged to heal the wounds that opened wider than ever during Netanyahus term. “The intention,” Yossi Beilin, one of his senior Labour colleagues, told Macleans, “is to have the widest possible coalition. The anti-religious swing was a reaction to the excesses of the last three years, rather than an expression of hatred towards Jewish tradition. We aim to quell these flames, to bring peace at home as well as peace with our neighbours.” The biggest religious party, Shas, was one possible partner. And Netanyahu resigned as Likud leader, leaving the way open for that party, too, to make a deal with Barak under interim chief Ariel Sharon.

Although peace and security were no longer the core issues dividing left from right in the election, a settlement with the Palestinians and the Syrians is at the top of Baraks agenda. The chief Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erakat, hailed the election result as “a vote for peace.” Barak says he wants to see early results on all fronts.

Bargaining on a final agreement with the Palestinians is due to end by May, 2000, already one year behind schedule. Otherwise, leader Yasser Arafat has threatened to declare a Palestinian state unilaterally. Barak has promised to get Israeli troops out of south Lebanon within one year. His people, including many of his generals, are eager for it. Recognizing that the road out of Lebanon runs through negotiations with Syria, including a substantial evacuation of the Golan Heights that Israel has held since the 1967 war, Barak is already drawing up blueprints for talks.

Still, Israeli commentators are sounding a warning note. Barak, wrote Shimon Shiffer in the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot, wasn’t in love with the 1993 Oslo peace agreement. “As chief of staff, he was very critical of what he saw as the holes in the security arrangements,” Shiffer noted. “He in-

tends to follow Rabin’s path: to proceed slowly, with caution.”

Others ask whether, after a lifetime fighting Arabs, Barak will have the emotional will not just to draw lines separating the two peoples, but to start building a new relationship between them. So far, Arab leaders give him the kind of credit they soon withdrew from Netanyahu. Arafat welcomed his election. King Abdullah, the new ruler of Jordan, said in Washington that he

thought Barak “is the type of man to take Israel into the next stage of peace and stability in our region.” President Hafez Assad of Syria signalled that he is ready to resume negotiations that went on hold during the Netanyahu years.

With 45 days to put together his government, Barak starts with a huge fund of goodwill, at home and abroad. Israelis hope their latest warrior statesman will somehow measure up to the greatest expectations he has ever faced. EH]