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Israel: Prime Minister-Elect Seen As A Man Of Contrasts

Prague, 19 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ehud Barak took his time about publicly acknowledging that he had been elected the new prime minister of Israel. It was 0300 (local time) this morning when he finally appeared in Rabin Square in the heart of Tel Aviv -- nearly five hours after incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu conceded defeat.

But when he finally did turn up, a crowd of nearly 100,000 gave him an enthusiastic welcome, chanting his name over and over again. In his typically awkward manner, Barak obliged the crowd by leading an off-key rendition of the Israeli national anthem.

Barak's performance is typical of him. And it was his clumsiness that first caught the public's attention. Donna Harman, a political reporter for the English-language daily "The Jerusalem Post," says members of Netanyahu's Likud Party at first joked that Barak was so dull he was an asset to them. Harman spoke by telephone today with RFE/RL:

"There's something uncomfortable about the way he looks. He has a kind of blank face, it's not fully matured. He has a sort of sly smile, sort of sly and shy at the same time like a cat. People have compared it to a cat that has just drunk up all the milk. And he doesn't come off particularly well on television."

Barak may not be particularly telegenic. But aides and rivals alike say that underneath the bland demeanor, he is insightful and fiercely competitive. He is also a study in contrasts -- a mix of hawk and dove, superhero soldier and classical pianist. Harman says that beneath the self-satisfied smile, lies an intense intellect.

"Seeing him close up is a completely different experience because he's very charismatic from close up. He's very interested in what people are saying, he knows exactly what's going on around him, he catches what people are saying, he remembers it and refers back to it, he has a great ability to filter things coming from all around and I think that has something to do with his intelligence."

Born in 1942 on a kibbutz that his immigrant parents helped found near the Lebanese border, the 57-year-old Barak went on to earn a master's degree in economic engineering systems from Stanford University in California. He is a man of diverse interests -- in addition to being an accomplished classical pianist, he is also an avid reader, and a tinkerer who likes to dismantle and build clocks.

But he is best known for his accomplished military career, where he earned a reputation for meticulous planning and precise execution. He spent years as platoon leader, tank-battalion chief, senior intelligence analyst, and finally as head of the Israeli Army general staff. His service in the army's most elite commando unit won him more medals than any other officer in Israeli history.

Barak's most celebrated military exploit was the 1972 storming of a Sabena airliner hijacked by Palestinian guerillas at Tel Aviv's airport. All 97 hostages were freed. Barak strengthened his reputation a year later when he crossed into Lebanon disguised as a woman on a mission in which three leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization were assassinated.

Barak left the military just four years ago, and was appointed interior minister in the Labor government led by Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. After Rabin's assassination later that year, Barak became foreign minister under Shimon Peres. Peres' narrow election defeat by Netanyahu six months later put Barak on the fast track to the Labor Party's leadership.

His military and political careers have also showed Barak to be a man of contrasts. Although he led a crackdown against the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the early 1990s, he helped negotiate a peace deal giving Palestinians control of areas in 1994. Harman says the contrast shows that Barak can see both sides of the Israeli dilemma.

"He's a fighter, he's a soldier and yet he's come around and realized the importance of moving forward, forging peace with the neighbors, working with the Palestinians to find resolutions to all the issues [being negotiated between them]. There is not a contradiction between those two things. On the contrary, he needed to be both. He needed to be a soldier and a peacemaker to make this process work."

Barak is expected to focus quickly on resuming peace negotiations that stalled under Netanyahu. There is already speculation that he will participate in a Mideast summit with U.S. President Bill Clinton and Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat as early as six months from now. He has also vowed to get Israeli troops out of Lebanon by June of next year.

Analysts predict he will be a tough negotiator, who is not prepared to go beyond certain limits. Harman says that despite his outstanding military career, Barak is not a risk-taker or a man of bravado. She says that means that any move toward peace that he does make will likely be slow, considered, and the result of consensus.