Lagging in polls, Barak still intent on leadership role

Lagging in polls, Barak still intent on leadership role

JERUSALEM — One month ago, Ehud Barak made his maiden appearance on “Glorious Land,” Israel’s version of “Saturday Night Live,” and was roundly roasted about his Labor Party’s poor prospects ahead of the Feb. 10 election.
Though the former prime minister weathered it all with good humor, his flat delivery and occasional line-flubbing were noted by pundits who deplored the lengths to which Israeli politicians now are willing to go to campaign.
But Barak probably was preoccupied with something: He had just come from a secret meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni at which they gave a green light to a blinding blitz on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. The war began shortly thereafter.
The surprise of the assault, which gutted Hamas capabilities before the group could muster a response, certainly was helped by the stealth tactics of Barak, Israel’s 66-year-old defense minister. Government leaders generally do not go on satirical TV shows right before they go to war.
And though there is debate over the long-term gains of the 22-day offensive, few in Israel challenge that it was a brilliantly executed campaign that atoned for the setbacks of the 2006 Lebanon war. Barak, a decorated former commando and military chief of staff, is getting the lion’s share of credit for it.
A Ma’ariv survey of public sentiment about the Gaza war gave Barak a 73 percent approval rating — higher than Olmert or Livni.
As the “Glorious Land” sketch ended, with one actress telling Barak he had no chance of retaking top office, he smiled enigmatically and waved her off. His campaign manager, Shalom Kital, later paraphrased the defense minister’s gesture as “wait and see!”
“When Israelis go to cast their ballots, the moment of truth, we believe they will vote for the man with a proven record of professionalism and experience,” Kital told JTA.
But while center-left Labor is now set to win 14 or 15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, twice the number predicted before the offensive, Barak continues to trail Livni, his rival from the centrist Kadima Party, and the front-runner, Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Polls show that Labor’s third-place ranking is even in doubt, with the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party rising precipitously amid Israel’s security jitters.
“Though the public generally commends Barak for his performance during the war, it does not see him as a candidate for prime minister,” noted Ma’ariv’s political correspondent, Maya Bengal.
The paradox doubtless puzzles some observers outside Israel. In a nation perpetually at war, Barak has shown mettle both for battle and diplomatic strategies of engagement and containment.
Born Ehud Brog in Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, the younger Barak was a cowboy with a flair for cerebral pursuits such as classical piano and stripping and rebuilding Swiss watches. This combination made him a perfect fit for Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s most elite commando unit, which he joined at age 17 and where he would change his last name to Barak, Hebrew for “lightning.”
While physically small, Barak did not lack for courage or ingenuity. He clambered up the ranks, overseeing operations such as the 1972 raid on a hijacked Sabena airliner and, a year later, the assassination of PLO leaders in Beirut. In the latter operation, he infiltrated dressed as a woman, lugging grenades in his brassiere.
Having garnered a record number of military decorations, Barak became Israel’s top general just as the first rapprochement efforts with the Palestinians were getting under way in the early 1990s. He naturally cleaved to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, another former chief of staff, and the alliance paved the way for Barak to join Labor when he left the military.