The Emerging Candidates: Shahak Enjoys Popularity, but Political Views Are Unclear

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak has been watching his popularity soar in public opinion polls as he prepares to launch his candidacy for prime minister.

But even as the former army chief of staff was officially discharged last week, Israelis were still trying to figure out just who he is.

Hoping to learn his plans, a pack of journalists pounced on Shahak outside the gates of an army base after he formally retired from 36 years of service.

But Shahak remained ambiguous, saying he would wait until an election date is set before formally announcing his candidacy as part of a newly formed centrist party.

“I think many people in the State of Israel are waiting for something different,” he said cautiously. “They want hope, and if I can help bring these things, I will.”

Despite his reticence about his plans, Shahak, 54, has already found himself under fire from both the left and right.

The Labor Party has accused him of splitting the left-wing vote by refusing to join Labor’s ranks, a move they say will only benefit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming elections.

The Likud Party has accused him of breaking Israeli military law by engaging in politics before officially leaving the army.

Polls say Shahak could get about 20 percent of the vote in a first round of elections against Netanyahu and Labor leader Ehud Barak, and that he would beat Netanyahu by 48 percent to 33 percent if the two competed in a second-round runoff.

Born in 1944 in Tel Aviv, Shahak graduated from a military preparatory school in Haifa before joining the army in 1962.

He was awarded the prestigious medal of valor twice, first in 1968 for his handling of a raid on a Palestinian guerrilla base in Jordan. His second decoration was for a daring undercover operation in Beirut in 1973, when he led one of two commando teams. The second team was led by Barak.

Shahak rose through the army ranks to become the head of military intelligence, deputy chief of staff and, eventually, chief of staff in 1995.

Some critics say Shahak failed to address important challenges confronting the military during his tenure as chief of staff.

The only major Israeli operation during that tenure was Operation Grapes of Wrath, a 16-day blitz in April 1996 on Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon. The operation included a devastating military failure: the accidental shelling of a U.N. base that killed some 100 Lebanese refugees who had taken shelter there.

Shahak’s last years in uniform will probably be best remembered for his role in negotiating the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.

After Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Declaration of Principles that launched the Oslo process in September 1993, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appointed Shahak — then deputy chief of staff — to head the team negotiating the first Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu, who was then the leader of the opposition, criticized the move, saying generals should not conduct political negotiations.

Just the same, a look at Shahak the negotiator — who was highly respected both by his colleagues and the Palestinians — provides a useful glimpse into his political skills.

In “The Process,” a recently published book by former Israeli negotiator Uri Savir about the Oslo process, there are several behind-the-scenes incidents involving Shahak.

On March 20, 1994, Shahak and a small group of Israeli delegates were dispatched to Tunis to try to break the stalemate in peace talks after the Hebron massacre, in which Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli extremist, killed 31 Muslims worshiping at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs.

An uncompromising Yasser Arafat insisted that Israel remove all Jewish settlers from Hebron.

Shahak took Arafat aside to the kitchen and lounge of the PLO guesthouse. When they returned, Arafat had softened.

“After talking with General Shahak, I have decided that we will return to the talks,” the book describes Arafat as saying. “Prime Minister Rabin is also under pressure, and I trust him to make the right decision about the settlers.”

Two factors are generally thought to be drawing Shahak to the political arena:

the 1995 assassination of his mentor, Rabin; and

several clashes with Netanyahu, who as prime minister reportedly tried to silence Shahak from providing military assessments related to the peace process.

Israeli newspapers, struggling to paint a picture of Shahak, have described him as a calm, self-assured man with a quiet charm and charismatic smile.

He is also described as an extremely cynical man who lacks the personal ambition of either Netanyahu or Barak.

Shahak is married to his second wife, Tali, a journalist, and has five children. He has a bachelor’s degree in history.

While Israelis try to form an opinion about Shahak, some analysts say there is only one clear conclusion to be drawn from the remarkable popularity of a man who has yet to declare his political intentions.

Israelis, the analysts say, are drawn to Shahak because they are fed up with the political system and all of the current candidates.

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