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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 11:45 GMT
Barak: Gung-ho dove
Ehud Barak
Barak: Most decorated military officer in Israeli history
By Gerald Butt

When Ehud Barak came to power in May 1999, he looked like just the right man to lead Israel into historic peace deals with the Palestinians and the Syrians.

The former military hero turned successful politician was renowned for his courage and mental adroitness on the battlefield.

For Israelis who admired and supported the late Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak was a dream come true. He said Israel was strong enough to make concessions that would bring peace and security.

But his coalition teetered on the brink of collapse, leaving himself with few political friends and eventually he called an early election.


Mr Barak's left-wing allies feel disappointed that he hesitated too often and made too many concessions to the right.

Celebrating Barak's landslide victory in 1999
The parties on the right and Jewish settlers accuse him of giving too much to the Palestinians and offering too much to the Syrians.

Israel's powerful ultra-orthodox community, meanwhile, took the opportunity to press for domestic demands.

Mr Barak, hoping for the accolade of statesman of peace found himself caught up in the grubby world of Israeli domestic politics - eventually leading to a hefty defeat to Likud leader Ariel Sharon in the prime ministerial election.

Among the Israeli people - or at least that half of the population who backed the formation of the Barak government - there is a sense of disappointment.

While they were sickened by the flamboyant showmanship of the previous prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, they found Mr Barak to be reclusive and uncommunicative.


Above all, he lacked the decisiveness that they thought he would have in taking difficult political decisions.

In the search for peace, in particular, the Barak government made much less progress than had been expected.

Ultra-Orthodox allies put Barak under pressure
Rather than pressing ahead and making territorial concessions to the Palestinians when he enjoyed widespread support, he dithered. That allowed his opponents time to regroup and put pressure on him.

And on the Syrian front he simply miscalculated President Hafez al-Assad's stubborn determination that no peace deal could precede the return of every inch of the Golan Heights.

Once again, by the time he realised this fact, growing sections of the Israeli public were having doubts about the wisdom of giving back even part of the Golan.

Political battles

Mr Barak's problems stemmed from his difficulty in adjusting to the process of decision-making in the world of politics, compared with that in the military.

PM under struggled to hold his cabinet together
As an army commander he could remain aloof and thoughtful. When he made a decision there was no-one to challenge him.

On the political battlefield, by contrast, he has a host of interest groups for and against him.

Rather than trusting that his authority would win the day - as it did in the army - Mr Barak has been trying to please friends and foes alike.

Early days

Mr Barak had only been leader of the Labour party since 1997, when he defeated the former leader, Shimon Peres.

Following in the footsteps of other soldier-statesmen
He 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.

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.

At 17, Mr Barak joined the army and began what was to be an illustrious career.

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.

All but his most committed supporters seem to prefer to remember Mr Barak as an adored military commander.

Gerald Butt is senior editor of Middle East Economic Survey (MEES)

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