Israel's Barak: From Great Promise To Punching Bag

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JERUSALEM (AP) - A decade ago, Ehud Barak was a popular Israeli prime minister and war hero on the historic verge of making peace with Syria and the Palestinians. Today, he is widely reviled as the country's most despised leader.

In his current post of defense minister, Barak has created enemies everywhere. Following a series of high-profile blunders, he is now blamed for everything from the collapse of peace talks with the Palestinians to the disintegration of the iconic Labor Party to infighting roiling the top military echelons.

Barak "will not rest until everything is destroyed," wrote newspaper columnist Ben Caspit, who once co-authored a glowing biography about Barak and his heroic military exploits. He now accuses Barak of turning the Israeli military "into something between a viper's nest and a cuckoo's nest."

Barak's troubles could also lead to problems for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Seen as a lone centrist in a coalition dominated by hard-line ideologues, Barak has played a key role in the government, projecting moderation and responsibility to the general public and to the international community. In particular, he still serves as the prime minister's point man to the United States.

But in recent months, Barak has increasingly become a liability for Netanyahu.

He shook up the political scene last month when he defected from the center-left Labor Party, depriving him of a strong political base. With the Israeli media lambasting him almost daily and the public angry over his political machinations, his days in politics could be numbered. Opinion polls indicate that if elections were held today, Barak's newly formed Independence Party would barely squeak into the 120-seat parliament.

While his popularity with the public has been waning for some time, his reputation as the country's top defense authority took what could be a fatal blow during his handling of the appointment of a new military chief.

Throughout the process, Barak feuded with Israel's popular outgoing military leader and insisted on hand-picking Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as his successor, despite early signals that Galant's candidacy faced serious ethical questions. Last week, Galant's appointment was canceled because of his involvement in a shady real estate deal.

An opinion poll conducted by the Dahaf agency last week, after Galant's appointment was scuttled, found that 74 percent of Israelis surveyed believe Barak's conduct in the saga had been detrimental to the country's security. The poll questioned 500 people and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

The bungled Galant appointment came on the heels of Barak's decision to step down as leader of the Labor Party and rip it apart by forming a new parliamentary faction with four other breakaways.

Barak, who had faced heavy criticism within Labor for the government's foot-dragging in peace efforts, said he made the move to preserve stability in the coalition. But it was widely seen as a survival maneuver meant to put down a brewing rebellion - and to keep his Cabinet post.

At the time, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a Labor stalwart, angrily said Barak "spit in the face of the party that elected him." One of his early political patrons, former Finance Minister Avraham Shochat, said Barak posed a danger to national security and was "not worthy of being defense minister."

Barak's office has largely kept silent in the face of the attacks. Barak was on a trip to Washington Wednesday, and aides did not return messages seeking comment.

The son of Eastern European immigrants, Barak was born on a communal farm in 1942. In the army he was groomed for greatness: he commanded a daring commando unit, became Israel's most decorated officer and rose through the ranks to become chief of staff. He retired from the military in 1995.

He then joined the Labor party, and his mentor Yitzhak Rabin appointed him a minister in his government. After Rabin's assassination at the hands of a Jewish ultranationalist in 1995, Barak was seen as his political heir.

In 1999 elections, Barak became prime minister. But his term lasted less than two years - the shortest for an elected premier - and he left office under stiff public criticism for his unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, his failed negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria, and a violent Palestinian uprising that erupted under his watch. He also drew criticism for his aloof, go-it-alone style, which alienated allies and foes alike.

He was crushed by Ariel Sharon in a 2001 election.

In the next few years, Barak amassed a fortune on the lecture circuit and in the corporate world. He famously purchased a high-rise Tel Aviv apartment reportedly worth more than $10 million, part of a lavish lifestyle that angered socialist supporters.

In 2007, he returned to politics, recapturing the leadership of the Labor Party and becoming defense minister to rehabilitate an army that performed poorly in a war against Hezbollah guerrillas the previous year. But he quickly quarreled with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over handling of a major Gaza offensive and got caught in a power struggle with the military chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.

Ofer Shelah, a veteran Israeli defense columnist, said that picking on the popular Ashkenazi was a grave mistake.

"The military chief is the most popular person in Israel, regardless of his identity. If you clash with him you are going to lose," he said. "He (Barak) just doesn't know how to work with other people."

Even U.S. officials are showing signs that they're growing impatient, expressing disappointment and frustration with Barak for overselling what the Netanyahu government can deliver in peace efforts with the Palestinians.

Einat Wilf, a Barak supporter who joined him in the Independence faction, said she was at a loss to explain the scope of animosity directed at Barak.

"This situation, where he is blamed for everything, borders on the irrational and seems like obsessive behavior," she said.

She said Barak himself thinks it has to do with his failed peace efforts with the Palestinians and Syria years ago. "He deprived the left of the fantasy of peace in our time," she said. "Rather than coming to terms with the harsh possibility that this might be the case, many prefer to direct their anger at him personally."
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