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Profile: Ehud Barak

Ehud Barak
Barak works the phones during the 2009 Israeli general election

A celebrated career in the Israeli military can be a springboard into politics - but Ehud Barak has not yet managed to build a political legacy to match his exploits as a commando or experience on the General Staff.

His main achievement during a brief stint as premier - ending Israel's painful occupation of south Lebanon in 2000 - is now viewed by many Israelis as a first tactical mistake in bankrupt policy: unilateral withdrawal.

And it was on his watch that the second Palestinian intifada began, ushering in a new stage of bloody conflict in the occupied territories that has yet to find a peaceful settlement.

Mr Barak himself earned a reputation in office as being arrogant, high-handed and unprepared to listen to anyone other than himself.

He seemed to acknowledge these shortcomings in a letter announcing his bid to regain the Labour party leadership in 2007.

"I made my share of mistakes and my inexperience hurt me... I realise now there are no shortcuts and leadership is not a one-man show," he wrote.

The party was prepared to give him another shot, and he took over the Labour leadership from Amir Peretz. He also took Mr Peretz's cabinet position - as defence minister, the former union boss was considered one of the least successful incumbents in Israel's history.

Military career

In his childhood, Ehud Brog (he changed his name to Barak, or "lightning" in Hebrew, when he joined the army) was an unlikely candidate to be Israel's most decorated soldier.

He was born on a kibbutz in 1942, the son of east European immigrants to Palestine.

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Wyre Davies looks at the career of Ehud Barak

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

At 17, he joined the army, where he would stay for another 35 years.

His enthusiasm for military life was evident from the start. After training he was assigned to the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal. Before he was 30, he was a commander in the top-secret unit, modelled on the British special forces regiment the SAS.

In 1972, he led a team disguised as mechanics which stormed a hijacked Belgian airliner at Tel Aviv airport and freed the hostages.

Four years later, he was involved in the planning of the Entebbe raid to free hostages held by Palestinian militants on a French airliner which they diverted to Uganda.

In 1973, he took part in a controversial mission when a group of undercover Israeli commandos landed rubber dinghies on the Lebanese coast and drove into Beirut where they gunned down members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Ehud Barak was disguised as a woman during the operation.

Israel claimed the targets had helped mastermind the deadly kidnapping of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

But Lebanese and Palestinians remember it as an unprovoked gangster-style execution, against civilian members of the PLO, including the poet Kamal Nasser.

In the 1980s, Mr Barak rose through Israel's military hierarchy, filling the top position, chief of the general staff, between 1991 and 1995.

His decorations include a distinguished service medal and four awards for bravery and excellence - making him jointly the most decorated soldier in Israeli's 60-year history.

Highs and lows

In politics, Ehud Barak has been described as a hawkish dove, someone who believes Israel must be strong in order to make peace.

Arafat pushed by Barak into negotiated room at Camp David
Arafat and Barak at Camp David - any optimism for peace was cruelly dashed
But unlike some of his opponents, he has said he believes that Israel has the necessary strength to make concessions that will bring peace and security.

He was elected in June 1999 on a campaign promise that he would pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon within a year of taking office - a popular move at time among Israelis concerned about the mounting casualties in the guerrilla war with Hezbollah.

Many were sceptical Mr Barak would pull it off, but he did - ahead of schedule.

It is not clear if Israeli planners anticipated the boost that Hezbollah would receive in Lebanon being able to claim its military resistance had liberated South Lebanon.

Then in July 2000, Ehud Barak and US President Bill Clinton tried to wrap up nearly a decade of peace negotiations with the Palestinians by bringing their leader Yasser Arafat to the presidential Camp David retreat.

The attempt failed, amid mutual recriminations about who was to blame for missing an historic peacemaking opportunity.

The gamble may not have not paid off, but Ehud Barak certainly showed his mettle at Camp David and subsequent talks at Taba in Egypt.

At the head of a crumbling governing coalition, he offered to cede parts of the occupied territories that many Israelis saw as integral parts of their homeland.

But the collapse of the talks led inexorably to the bloody unravelling of the Oslo peace process later that year.

As Mr Barak left the political scene, it was the chance for an earlier generation of the general-turned-politician to show how it should be done - to the delight of many Israelis and the consternation of supporters of negotiated solutions.

Ariel Sharon emerged to dominate Israeli politics during the first half of the 2000s. It was only when his health let him down - he had a massive stroke in January 2006 - that the way was cleared for political rivals like Mr Barak to re-launch their careers.

In the meantime, Mr Barak followed a business career in the United States. He is twice married, with three daughters from his first wife.

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