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Thursday, 27 January, 2000, 14:00 GMT
Profile: A trusted leader

Ehud Barak Barak: Most decorated military officer in Israeli history

Mr Barak began his political career in 1995, serving as interior minister in the Rabin cabinet. The move represented a significant change of direction for a man who had lived and breathed the army since his teens.

In his childhood, Mr Barak did not look like someone who would become the most decorated military officer in Israeli history.

He was born Ehud Brog (later adopting the traditional Hebrew name Barak which means "lightning") on a kibbutz in 1942, the son of east European immigrants to Palestine.

Although he had the company of three younger brothers, Mr Barak's main interests were reading and playing the piano. He remains an accomplished pianist.

At 17, Mr Barak joined the army and began what was to be an illustrious career. His enthusiasm for military life was evident from the start.

Middle East
Soon after he had completed his training he was assigned to an elite army unit. Before he was 30, he was a commander; Binyamin Netanyahu one of his officers.

Mr Barak was respected for his inventiveness as much as his bravery in action. In 1972, he led a team from the elite force disguised as mechanics which stormed a Belgian airliner that had been hijacked to Israel by Palestinians.

Four years later, he led another undercover mission - this time to Beirut to kill three Palestinians accused of masterminding the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics the previous year. The squad travelled by rubber dinghy to Beirut, and then donned disguises (Mr Barak was dressed as a woman) before seeking out and killing their targets.

Leading the troops

Some commentators have called him a hawkish dove. He believes that Israel must be strong in order to make peace.

But unlike his opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, he has said he believes that Israel has the necessary strength to make concessions that will bring peace and security.

Above all, Mr Barak believes Israelis should get rid of their "ghetto mentality" that demonises Israel's neighbours.

Mr Barak has only been leader of the Labour party since 1997, when he defeated the former leader, Shimon Peres. His skill as a politician has not yet been put fully to the test.

But he has gained a reputation for being an able and trusted leader - if not a particularly charismatic one. His supporters insist that he has an instinctive political sense.

Indeed he does. His campaign was universally heralded as superior to Mr Netanyahu's - and it won him the election with by 14.5% according to the first exit polls.

Still, he will need all the shrewdness and inventiveness that he demonstrated in his army career to fight off the onslaught that he can expect from in negotiating the Middle East peace process and the flagging Israeli economy.

Gerald Butt is a former BBC Jerusalem correspondent

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