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Ehud Barak, Israel's Defense Minister and Former Prime Minister

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Ehud Barak

Ehud Barak

Mehdi Fedouach - Pool/Getty Images

Why Ehud Barack Matters:

Ehud Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier and a Labor Party leader, was the country's prime minister between 1999 and 2000. He resigned following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in December 2000. He became defense minister in 2007. Angling for another run at the prime ministership, he laid siege to the Gaza Strip in response to indiscriminate bombardments of Israeli territory by Hamas, the militant Islamist Palestinian faction controlling Gaza. A fearsome hawk, Barak launched an all-out assault on Gaza in December 2008.

Personal Life:

Ehud Barak was born Ehud Brog, or Brug, on Feb. 12, 1942, on Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, a collective farm on the Mediterranean coast of British-controlled northern Palestine. He was the oldest of four sons born to idealistic Eastern European parents who'd arrived in Palestine in 1933. Less outgoing, more intellectual than other boys, and boastfully skilled at the piano, Ehud was practical and sharply inquisitive.

He was expelled from high school for truancy, but earned an M.A. in economic engineering systems from Stanford. He has three daughters from a marriage that lasted some 30 years before ending in divorce.

Audacity in the Army:

When he joined the army at 17, Barak changed his first name to Barak, Hebrew for “lightning,” and went on to live up to the conceit. He commanded a special forces team by 28 and became an audacious hit man and mastermind of counterterrorist operations.

He led a force that freed 97 hostages from a hijacked Belgian airliner in Tel Aviv in May 1972, and the following year, dressed as a woman, infiltrated a team in Beirut to kill three Palestinian militants in retaliation for the Black September massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

Rapid Rise through 37 Years in the Army:

By age 37, Barak was a general in the Israeli army. He’d served in the Six Day War in 1973 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and was deputy commander of Israeli forces in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. In 1991 he became the military’s youngest chief of staff—all along continuing his planning of assassinations, including that of PLO strategist Abu Jihad in 1988.

Barak was implicated in a scandal following a 1992 incident when a military exercise he was leading in the Neguev desert left five soldiers dead and Barak mired in allegations of a cover-up.

Ehud Barak and Lebanon:

Toward the end of his military career, Barak’s stance regarding militant organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah anticipated the rigid political character he was developing. He supported the deportation of 415 Palestinian Hamas militants to Lebanon in 1992, triggering an international outcry.

Barak launched a 1993 bombing campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon that left more than 100 people dead, forced thousands to flee, and reinforced Hezbollah’s image as a “resistance” organization. The operation presaged Israel’s disastrous 2006 war with Hezbollah.

Ehud Barak’s Self-Certain Inflexibility:

Honing a sense of determination that brooked no compromise, Ehud Barak prides in letting arrogance shadow his resolve. “Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s former deputy defense minister, who knew Barak well,” writes David Aaron Miller in The Much Too Promised Land, “described him as ‘too hasty in rendering judgments,’ believing that his ‘logic prevails over everything.’ Somehow this mindset seemed to me at odds with the skills required for battle, the capacity and flexibility to deal with new variables and surprises by the other side.”

In sum, Miller writes, “Ehud Barak saw himself elected to perform a mission: to end the Arab-Israeli conflict or else to make clear to the world that Israel had no Arab partners worthy of the name.”

The latter proved to be a self-fulfilling prophesy for Barak. He agreed to let President Clinton mediate peace talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2000, but balked at Arafat’s demand that Israel give up 100 percent of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. The talks’ failure led to the second Palestinian Intifada and Barak’s resignation.

The Once and Future Prime Minister:

Barak winning the election for prime minister in 1999 was unexpected. He defeated Benjamin Netanyahu with 56 percent of the vote, but his tenure was short, rocky and ultimately fruitless. He oversaw the withdrawal of Israeli troops from virtually all of the southern Lebanon zone they had occupied since 1982, but his strategy for peace talks with Syria and the Palestinians was flawed: he promised too much, focused too little, and ended up satisfying neither. He survived two no-confidence votes before resigning in December 200.

He rejoined the government as defense minister in June 2007, lending the cabinet of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert credibility on military issues. Olmert was under withering criticism for lacking an objective in his 2006 war. The often violent stand-off between Hamas and Fatah as well as between Hamas and Israel, in Gaza, were opening gashes of uncertainty in Israel’s security and a future Palestinian state. Barak anchored himself in the defense ministry, projecting strength—and his candidacy for prime minister in February 2009.

Summing Up “Napoleon” Barak:

Though a leftist, Labor Party leader, Barak is not a favorite of Israel’s peace movement.

Nahum Barnea, columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, wrote of Barak (who is nicknamed “Napoleon” by friends, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper: “He’s a gifted, brilliant, sober observer who can analyze the political and security situation better than anyone else, but he does not have the patience, ability to engage in dialogue, or understanding of people to change the situation for the better. His mind is long; his arm is short.”

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