Ehud Barak - a leader Israelis love to hate

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 January, 2009, 12:00am

The billboards around the country show a composed looking Ehud Barak flanked by mildly derogatory slogans - 'He's not nice', 'He's not your buddy', or 'He's not trendy'. All, however, end with the same phrase: 'But he's a leader.'

Rated in the polls a poor third among candidates for prime minister in next month's national elections, Mr Barak and his publicists fell back last month on self-mockery in a desperate bid to signal to the voters that he was human enough to laugh at himself. That desperation appeared to reach its nadir last week when Mr Barak, a former prime minister and a war hero, showed up on a popular satirical television show, A Wonderful Country, to take part in a skit in which he tries to sell his multimillion-dollar Tel Aviv apartment - a real-life albatross for Mr Barak as leader of the Labour Party - and then is rejected by the residents' committee when he attempts to move into an ordinary apartment building because he is not nice enough.

That skit, shown a few days before Israel's surprise attack on Gaza, may prove a turning point in Mr Barak's political fortunes. It was revealed this week that his appearance was part of an elaborate feint, of Mr Barak's devising, aimed at lulling Hamas into thinking that an Israeli strike was not imminent. If Israel's defence minister was engaged in such nonsense, war did not seem close.

In a poll taken three days after Israel's opening air attack a week ago, the Labour Party increased its projected seats in the 120-seat Knesset from 10 to 16 as voters tipped their hats to Mr Barak. Political commentators, who had written off his return to the prime minister's office, now give him a good chance if the Gaza campaign turns out well.

Mr Barak is a political anomaly - a highly intelligent figure with degrees in physics and in economic engineering systems from Stanford - and a commando extraordinaire, Israel's most highly decorated soldier. Despite these attributes, however, a political commentator last year called him 'the most hated politician in the country'.

It is not clear why.

'There is some sort of transparent barrier between me and the public,' Mr Barak said in an interview in the newspaper Haaretz last month. 'Life placed me on the ultimate track of getting things done under conditions of total uncertainty and high risk. In those places you do not look for love. Perhaps you do not give love either.'

In his most famous high-risk mission, he led a group of commandos into the heart of Beirut in 1973 after landing at night by rubber boat to assassinate Palestinian leaders in their homes. Mr Barak's disguise was as a blonde in a dress and high heels. (He is said to wear the dress every year to parties during the Jewish Purim carnival holiday)

Apart from the personality issue, he won disfavour by divorcing his wife of many years - who was beloved by the public - and by buying that luxury apartment with his new wife from the fortune he made as a security consultant. The purchase, he now admits, was a mistake for a political leader.

Born in a spartan kibbutz commune, Mr Barak spent 36 years as a professional soldier, including a stint as commander of Israel's most elite commando unit. Retiring as army chief of staff in 1991, he entered politics and was elected prime minister eight years later.

Two events highlighted his brief premiership - his withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon where they had been fruitlessly fighting guerillas for 18 years and his attempt to conclude a peace agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Although he offered greater concessions to Arafat than any Israeli leader, the attempt failed and Mr Barak was voted out of office.

Returning to politics after the failed 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, he joined the government of Ehud Olmert as a coalition partner and defence minister. Acknowledged as cool-headed, strategic-minded and competent, the 'transparent barrier' nevertheless prevented the public from viewing him as a prospective leader. However, he was sometimes referred to as 'Napoleon' by army colleagues for his diminutive size and firmness of views.

In the weeks leading up to the current conflict, as a truce with Hamas began to dissipate, Mr Barak came under attack from fellow ministers and the public for not ordering reprisals for the resumption of rocketing from Gaza. He said Israel would not rush into a military operation. 'When there is no choice we will act. I am minister of defence, not minister of war.' Meanwhile, he prepared the army.

After last Saturday's attack, when the public became aware that the precise operation had been carefully choreographed over a period of time on Mr Barak's watch, his star immediately began to rise. The contrast with the rush to war by Mr Olmert's government in 2006 when the army was unprepared was striking.

'The question is not whether I am nice or chummy,' said Mr Barak in his Haaretz interview. 'When a plane has to be landed in a storm, you don't ask if there is someone nice [in the cockpit]. You want someone who knows how to land a plane in a raging storm.'

Despite the collapse of his talks with Arafat, he strongly advocates dialogue with the Palestinians. 'We have to move forward, constantly looking for political solutions on one hand while the other hand stays on the trigger.'