Hawk and dove: Ehud Barak at a press conference, November 2011. (Blair Gable / Courtesy Reuters)
Ehud Barak is one of Israel's most important leaders -- and also one of its most enigmatic and controversial. As defense minister in the current government, Barak prosecuted the November Gaza campaign, handles the Palestinian brief, and, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, gets the last word on whether to attack Iran -- Israel's most pressing security concern despite the recent focus on Hamas. Given the pariah status of Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, Barak, a frequent presence in Washington, essentially covers that portfolio as well. Yet despite 35 years of military service and more than a decade in public life, Barak remains something of a cipher -- a man one of Israel's leading columnists, Ari Shavit, compares to a stealth bomber ("the usual radar doesn't capture him"). "I don't know anyone more difficult to read," Shavit says.
It's no wonder: to say that Barak is full of contradictions doesn't begin to do him justice. Now 70, Barak first came to national prominence in his 30s, as a hero among heroes in a security-obsessed country. An erudite, accomplished classical pianist, Barak was a special forces legend famous for actions such as planning the hostage-rescue raid on Entebbe and sneaking into Lebanon on an assassination run dressed as a woman. He finished his military career as chief of the general staff, then parachuted into politics in 1995, drafted into the left-wing Labor Party by his mentor, then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In 1999, a few years after Rabin's murder, Barak was elected prime minister himself in a landslide, promising to withdraw from Lebanon and make peace with both the Syrians and the Palestinians. Less than two years later, his peace plans were in ashes, the second intifada was raging, and Barak was out of a job after the shortest tenure of any Israeli leader in history.
Banished from power, he withdrew to a lucrative private life. And then he reinvented himself again.