The Observer Profile: Ehud Barak — Israel’s little Napoleon

By David Horovitz July 11, 1999

Last week, it was Mubarak. Today, it’s Arafat. This week, it’s Clinton. Can Israel’s tenth Prime Minister be the man who will broker a lasting peace deal?

Every day, for seven full weeks after he crushed Binjamin Netanyahu in the 17 May elections, Ehud Barak would invite his potential coalition partners to meet with him.

Evening turned to night, to late night, to near dawn, and still Barak wanted to talk – to set out his goals as Prime Minister, and cajole these minor party leaders into setting aside their own burning interests to help him achieve his. Ties at half-mast, red blotches under their eyes, they would eventually stagger out to the journalists, smile wearily about how effectively Barak must have ground down enemies in his former life as Army chief of staff and slope off home to bed.

Finally, last Tuesday, the talking was over. Barak stood at the Knesset podium and announced that he had secured the support of no fewer than 75 of the 120 parliamentarians. Israel’s largest-ever peacemaking government was born.

The patient handling of those talks says much about Ehud Barak.

Critically for Israel, he has learned this decade’s most important lesson about governing his country – it cannot be done with only half the people on your side. Yitzhak Rabin tried to trailblaze the path to peace like the old soldier he was. He knew where he was going and the grumbling rank and file would fall into line. Except that the grumbling turned into mutiny – and Rabin was gunned down. Then came Netanyahu, and the other half of Israel, the moderate half, was alienated by his refusal to trade land for Yasser Arafat’s promises of peace.

Barak’s 56 to 44 per cent victory over Netanyahu underlined that the moderates are strengthening, but it hardly represented an overwhelming consensus. He could have swiftly welded a ‘narrow’ coalition – his own ‘One Israel’ alliance, and the centrist, leftist, Arab and immigrant parties – and spared himself the late nights. Instead, he pressed for a broader government – more stable, more representative. He brought three Orthodox parties on board – compromising with them. There will be no conscription of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, whose Army evasion infuriates secular Israel. Conservative and reform Judaism will not enjoy dramatic breakthrough status. The domestic agenda has been sacrificed to the primary cause of peacemaking.

Israel’s tenth prime minister is cut in the Rabin mould, but is a more rounded version of his late mentor. Like Rabin, he has made it to the top twice – first in the military, where he was Israel’s most decorated soldier, and now in politics. He, too, is fiercely secular, but he’s having learn to fast about his fellow Israeli politicians’ religious sensibilities. Unlike Rabin, he has a rich university education, with first and second degrees in maths and systems analysis, is unusually widely read, speaks pretty good English and plays the piano well (although he stops whenever the cameras catch him at it).

In contrast to his three-times married predecessor, Netanyahu, he remains happily with his first wife, Nava, who makes a gracious change from the slightly manic Sara Netanyahu. The Baraks’ three daughters are all grown up, but it is hard to imagine the capable-looking Nava Barak having fired nannies for burning the children’s soup or requiring her husband to wash his hands before touching the children, as was Mrs Netanyahu’s reported practice.

Barak has taken office determined to be a peacemaker, but he is no pushover. Both Syria’s President Assad and Yasser Arafat, the two men with whom he hopes to forge a regional peace, will have grinned wryly at the sight of those exhausted politicians escaping from Barak’s clutches – and recognised a worthy rival.

The new Prime Minister, 57, is not new to either of them, nor particularly beloved. In an earlier effort at peacemaking with Syria, he demanded that the Syrian Army be redeployed, with fewer troops close to the Israeli border. Outraged at this impertinence, Assad broke off all dialogue for six months. As for Arafat, Barak has taken pains never to be photographed embracing him. In political broadcasts before his 1996 election success, Netanyahu made merry use of footage showing his opponent, Shimon Peres, walking hand in hand with the Palestinian leader. This year, scouring for similar footage with which to brand Barak an Arafat groupie, the Netanyahu researchers came up empty handed.

And yet both Arafat and Assad have welcomed Barak’s success, evidently recognising that, after the zigzags of the Netanyahu era, a pragmatist has taken power. Assad has called him strong, decent, committed to peace and capable of achieving it – the nicest things, by some considerable distance, that he has ever said of any Israeli leader. On the campaign trail, Barak stated flatly that ‘peace with Syria is impossible without withdrawal’ from the Golan Heights – music to Assad’s ears. With Syria as a partner, the new Prime Minister knows, Israel gets tranquillity on its border with Lebanon as well: President Assad can rein in the Hizbollah guerrillas, enabling Israel’s occupying troops to withdraw to the international border.

On the Palestinian front, Barak dismisses Netanyahu’s opposition to independent Palestinian statehood – ‘I won’t presume to tell them what to call themselves,’ he says. But he will try to extend Israeli sovereignty, to encompass many of the Jewish settlers. And he will not let the Palestinians rule in Arab East Jerusalem – suggesting instead, perhaps, that they declare their capital at Abu Dis, a suburb outside the city borders.

The way he tells it now, when Clinton strategist James Carville came to Israel in January, hired to kickstart the campaign, he ‘couldn’t find anyone who thought Barak would beat Netanyahu’. It did look an uneven battle. The slick, charismatic Netanyahu, citing statistics showing how the suicide bombers had been thwarted during his term, would surely brush aside the bullet-headed Barak, a relative political novice with the unfortunate smug look and the suits a size too small.

But Carville helped with the image, teaching Barak to try and relax on screen, to keep his sentences shorter, to use his hands to emphasise his points. He also refused TV debates with Netanyahu; with a client as stiff and straight as Barak, there is a limit to what even the most skilled consultant can do.

Behind the scenes, though, it was Barak who called the shots, choosing to play up his pledge for a Lebanon withdrawal, to focus on Mr Netanyahu’s economic failures, and to appeal for support among Russians – the key swing voters. Hyping his military past to the immigrants, his TV ads showed him as Netanyahu’s commanding officer in an Žlite commando unit, thwarting an airline hijacking in 1972, plotting the Entebbe airport rescue four years later. No mention was made of his starring role in the 1988 assassination in Tunis of Abu Jihad, Mr Arafat’s deputy.

Some subordinates used to call him ‘the little Napoleon’ in his army days. And in the wake of his victory, one begins to see why. His desire to maximise his personal control has seen him appoint mediocre loyalists as his foreign and finance ministers. Emulating Rabin, he is serving as his own Minister of Defence. He even sat down to write his own inaugural Knesset address – the entire hour of it.

Reluctant to trust new faces, he has brought back some of the old, however stained. His right-hand man is Dani Yatom, the Mossad chief sacked by Netanyahu after a botched assassination attempt on a Hamas Islamic leader in Amman. On Tuesday, Yatom was attempting to contact Jordan’s King Abdullah to set up a meeting; the Jordanians were proving reluctant to come to the telephone.

The meeting was eventually scheduled – for later this week. On Friday, Barak met Egypt’s President Mubarak. Today, he sees Arafat. By the weekend, he’ll be in Washington with President Clinton. After three years of stagnation under Netanyahu, and then those seven weeks of coalition talks, Barak is bent on making up for all the lost time.

Israeli history was not supposed to have unfolded in this way. Rabin had earmarked Barak as his successor. He hoped to complete the ‘circle of peace’ in the Middle East and make way, job done. But an assassin intervened, Netanyahu came to power and peace got pushed aside.

Now Barak is picking up the pieces, but with several advantages. Israelis have elected a leader to work with, rather than confront, the Palestinians. They are coming round to the idea of trading the Golan Heights. President Assad, ailing, is desperate for a deal. So too the lip-trembling Arafat.

The day after his election victory, Barak came to Jerusalem. To no one’s surprise, he visited Rabin’s grave. Less predictably, he came to the Western Wall. With rabbis all around him, the secular boy from the kibbutz, who never had a bar-mitzvah party, said his prayers.

Ehud Barak is determined to lead Israel to peace – all of Israel, Left and Right, Orthodox and secular. And at this juncture in the region’s history, with this coalition, he just might do it.