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PROFILE Barak’s ‘lightning’ victory follows path of his mentor, Yitzhak Rabin

JERUSALEM, May 18 (JTA) — Ehud Barak swept to a lightning victory in Israel’s elections this week, as befits a man whose Hebrew name means just that. Barak’s stunning victory over Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu — he received 56 percent of the vote to Netanyahu’s 44 percent, with more than 97 percent of the vote counted — is just the final step in the former army chief of staff’s near-meteoric rise from career military man to the top of Israel’s political ladder. It is also another way in which Barak’s trajectory has followed that of his mentor, the slain Yitzhak Rabin. Like Rabin, Barak, 57, came to politics following an illustrious military career. And like his mentor, he appears to have similarly meshed an image of soldier-peacemaker. Barak was born in 1942 near Netanya, at Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon — which his mother, Esther Brog, an immigrant from Poland, helped found. An accomplished pianist, he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a master’s degree in economic-engineering systems from Stanford University. He is married and has three children. Israel’s most-decorated soldier, Barak’s military career spanned more than 30 years. He held key command positions in the Israel Defense Force during the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As head of the IDF’s most elite unit, he commanded Netanyahu in one of its most well-known missions, leading an assault on a hijacked Belgian airliner at Ben-Gurion Airport in 1972, killing the hijackers and rescuing scores of passengers. A year later, he posed as a woman in a raid in Beirut in which three Palestinian fighters were killed. Barak, who left the army as chief of staff in 1995, served briefly as interior minister in Rabin’s Labor-led government. Following Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Barak served as foreign minister in the government led by Shimon Peres. He succeeded Peres as party leader in 1997. As IDF chief of staff in the 1990s, he was involved in Israel’s emerging peace negotiations with its Arab neighbors. He helped finalize Israel’s 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, and met with his Syrian counterpart in negotiations with Damascus. He also oversaw Israel’s redeployment in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip under the Oslo accords. Throughout his campaign, Barak pledged to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process spearheaded by Rabin and brought to a near standstill under the three-year government of Benjamin Netanyahu. In his victory speech early Tuesday morning, Barak reiterated his commitment to achieving peace with the Palestinians — calling for a separation of the two peoples and reiterating that Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of Israel. On Syria, Barak has said he is open to territorial compromise on the Golan Heights, but would not return to the pre-1967 borders. Barak pledged during the campaign to pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon within a year of being elected. He has already seen a taste of what lies ahead on this track, when Katyusha rockets landed in northern Israel overnight Tuesday. Addressing jubilant supporters before dawn at the Tel Aviv square where Rabin was shot by the ultranationalist Yigal Amir, Barak promised to continue in Rabin’s path. Later Tuesday he visited Rabin’s grave at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl after stopping at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. But his first task is to bridge the deep social and ethnic divides in Israeli society, which were so starkly evident in the bitter five-month campaign that preceded his election on Monday. In a campaign against Netanyahu carefully orchestrated with the help of U.S. political strategist James Carville, Barak assembled a Labor-led list incorporating representatives from Gesher, the predominantly Sephardi movement that champions the rights of blue-collar Israelis, and Meimad, the moderate Orthodox movement. “I intend to be the prime minister of all. Whatever differences there are between us, we are brothers, and brothers stay together,” he declared in his victory speech after the election. His first challenge bring Israelis together will come in the next few weeks, when he attempts to cobble together a governing coalition from the roughly 15 parties that will have seats in Israel’s next Knesset.

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