'Damaged' general gets Israel cabinet job

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Lieutenant-General Ehud Barak, the former Israeli chief of staff, joins the Israeli cabinet today to strengthen the governing Labour party, but he is already fighting for his political life over allegations that he failed to care for the dead and wounded during a training accident five years ago.

The government had hoped that by recruiting Gen Barak, a popular chief of staff and close adviser to Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, it could boost its chances in the 1996 general election. His prestige also would make it easier to win support among voters for the army's withdrawal from parts of the West Bank as a result of peace accords with the PLO.

His entry into political life was going smoothly, and he was already being spoken of as a future prime minister, when earlier this month Israel's largest daily newspaper, Yediot Aharanot, published an investigation into a military accident in 1990 in which five Israeli soldiers died when a rocket exploded.

The accident, known as Tse'elim-2 after the training base in the Negev where it occurred, was witnessed by Gen Barak. The article quoted soldiers who accused him of doing nothing to help the wounded and leaving the base soon after the explosion. There are also allegations that Gen Barak changed his account of who was responsible for the exercise in the months after the accident.

The general was in China on a business trip when the story broke. He flew back to defend himself in an interview watched or listened to by 51 per cent of Israelis on television and radio. In an emotional and assertive account of what happened he attacked the investigation as "a false pseudo- account sanctioned by the highest echelons of a newspaper which is power- drunk and manipulative".

Confirming that he was 500 yards from the explosion, Gen Barak said "there were four dead and seven wounded, one dying; a doctor and 30 people were tending them". He said he left only after helicopters had evacuated the casualties and, even if there had been unattended wounded, he would expect a senior officer to devote himself to managing the operation as a whole.

Polls show that most Israelis approved of Gen Barak's aggressive defence. But the controversy may have irreparably damaged his chances of succeeding Mr Rabin as prime minister. His strident tone has convinced some observers that he will take time to adapt to political life. It is unclear which post he will take, but the most likely is the Interior Ministry.

Yossi Beilin, deputy foreign minister and a principal driving force behind negotiations with the Palestinians, is also to join the cabinet.

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