Macho man took army's path to power

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The Independent Online
IN THE last weeks of the election campaign, Ehud Barak, leader of the Labour party, has spent much of his time keeping his mouth shut while Benjamin Netanyahu, his opponent, self-destructed.

Mr Barak remains a private, unknowable character though the facts of his career are well documented. Most of it was spent in the Israeli army. Born in Mishmar Hasharon kibbutz, south of Haifa, in 1942, he joined the army in 1959 and spent the next 35 years there.

His military career prospered. He led a reconnaissance group in the 1967 war and a tank battalion in Sinai in 1973. He led an attack - heavily publicised during the election campaign - to free hostages from a hijacked aircraft and became a general at the age of 37.

In Israel there is a well-beaten establishment career path, which leads from the kibbutz to the army high command and then into Labour party.

As Israeli chief of staff in the early Nineties, Mr Barak was close to Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, who groomed him as the next party leader.

It all happened quicker than anybody could have expected. Mr Rabin was assassinated in 1995 just after Mr Barak joined his cabinet. The next year Labour lost the election, and with its other leaders discredited, Mr Barak took over.

Despite early flounderings, Mr Barak has a well-organised mind, is intensely competitive and has good nerves. But he also had a lot of luck. Mr Netanyahu's premiership was always a balancing act between different factions of the right and between ethnic and religious parties. From the end of last year it began to fall apart.

Mr Barak is a self-confident, even arrogant man, but is also shy. He presents himself as a mixture of macho and intellectual. He looks set to enjoy a long honeymoon period as prime minister since most Israelis, all Palestinians and every government in the world will be glad to see the back of Mr Netanyahu.