Warrior and intellectual

Barak: Israel's new prime minister is a thinker with a hero's history.

May 18, 1999|By ANN LOLORDO | ANN LOLORDO,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israel's new prime minister personifies the country's warrior hero and the creative intellect of the early statesmen of the Jewish democracy.

A soldier-politician in the tradition of the late Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak grew up on a kibbutz that his parents helped establish before the founding of Israel in 1948.

He served in an elite combat unit that assassinated terrorists in Lebanon, freed passengers from a hijacked jet in 1972 and rescued Jewish hostages in a famous raid on a hijacked airliner in Entebbe, Uganda.

The grandson of Polish Jews who remained in Europe and died in a Nazi concentration camp, Barak made the military his career. He earned the distinction of being Israel's most-decorated soldier and quit the military 35 years later as the army chief of staff.

But the retired general possesses other talents.

Speaking of a potential Palestinian state abutting Israel's borders, he evoked American poet Robert Frost to explain his reason for insisting on "the physical separation of two people" -- good fences make good neighbors.

Described by colleagues and friends as an intellectual, Barak refers to Israel's key natural resource as "the gray material over the shoulders of Israelis -- their brain power."

A proponent of educational reform and free university tuition, Barak studied phys-ics in Israel and earned a graduate degree in engineering systems analysis from Stanford University.

In the beginning, Barak showed little promise as a student. As a schoolboy in Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, he couldn't be bothered with homework and was tossed out of high school for his pranks (he later earned his equivalency degree in the army).

He preferred to disassemble locks and clocks and rebuild them. And play classical piano, at which he excelled. Then, Barak was known by his family name, Brog.

He later adopted a Hebrew surname in the Zionist tradition, although he was the only family member to do so. In Hebrew, Barak means "lightning."

"If you like to play with the meaning of energy and strength, it is legitimate," Avinoam Brog said of his eldest brother's choice.

The image certainly fit the young Barak, a trim, compact commando with a thick head of curly black hair who once donned a wig and women's clothes and carried an explosives-filled purse on a secret mission to assassinate a squad of Palestinian hit men.

That was during a successful mission into Beirut in 1973, which ended with the deaths of the Palestinian terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Today, the slightly pudgy, thin-lipped politician in a dark suit looks more like a physics professor.

Barak's approach is methodical and cautious. Described as a "quick study," he remains a detail man when he considers a policy on educational reform or economic development.

"He's not a man who works by the book; he is a man who invents the book," said Yuli Tamir, a Tel Aviv University philosophy professor who advised Barak on educational issues. "In the election, he decided he would run a very different campaign than what was done before, and it has turned out extremely successful."

Unlike Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the raspy-voiced Barak is ill at ease on a podium. He has been criticized for being long-winded and using arcane, although apt, historical descriptions.

A journalist for the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'Aretz recalled how several years ago Barak, then the army's chief of staff, described his plan to prepare the country's defense forces for the battles of the 21st century.

Barak's explanation began with the Punic wars fought by Hannibal 2,200 years ago and ended with the exploits of then-defense minister Ariel Sharon in Lebanon in the 1980s.

But when Barak asked out the woman who would become his wife, he did so without uttering a word. Nava Cohen, a descendant of Jews expelled from Spain, was listening to a tape in the university library, according to Barak's biography, "Israel's No. 1 Soldier."

Barak slipped a newspaper listing of Jerusalem movies under her nose, penciled with a question mark. She smiled and checked off the movie of her choice.

Married now 30 years, the couple has three daughters.

More direct approach

During the campaign, Barak's American political consultants helped the candidate streamline his message and deliver it in a direct, concise way.

"Ehud's thought process is circular and thorough," said Dov Tamari, Barak's former commander in the elite Sayeret Matkal Unit, who remains a close friend.

"He needs less time than the average person to solve problems. He contemplates reality at the same time that he considers the end state of every situation.

"Most people work through a problem block by block," Tamari added. "Ehud constructs the solution ahead of time. There are very few people whose logic works like that. Netanyahu, on the other hand, reacts immediately to things as they occur. Barak visualizes the future and decides how to react to it."

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