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NEWS ANALYSIS : Peres Looks to Retired General to Cement Peace

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a team of peacemakers, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were known as Mr. Security and The Dreamer.

Left alone now, The Dreamer needs a new Mr. Security to shore up public confidence in the peace process, and he may have his man in a Rabin protege: Interior Minister Ehud Barak.

As acting prime minister, Peres already has given the retired general responsibility for overseeing the country’s defense, and most political observers expect Peres to name Barak defense minister in a new government.

Although Peres was the force behind development of Israel’s nuclear capability and has served as defense minister himself, the big-thinking architect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord is not seen as a military man by this country that admires fatigue-clad soldiers with mud on their boots.

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Barak, a former army chief of staff, takes care of that. He is the most decorated soldier in Israel and can use his field experience to sell the peace plan. He is also a strategic thinker who spent the past few years preparing the army to fight a high-tech war against enemies such as Iraq and Iran.

Israelis who fear that the dovish Peres might compromise the country’s security in final negotiations with the Palestinians may look to Barak, as they did to Rabin, for a military seal of approval. And Peres will count on Barak to tell them the deals they cut are safe.

“Peres’ greatest problem is with the issue of security,” said Hirsh Goodman, editor of the Jerusalem Report magazine and a longtime military analyst. “There’s no doubt about it, Barak is a key player for the stability of this government.”

But Barak could be a double-edged sword for Peres, who probably would prefer to keep the Defense Ministry for himself--if he thought he could get away with it politically--since the ministry oversees implementation of the peace plan.

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Barak is still a relative novice in the political arena and has a political agenda of his own--to become prime minister. He knows that Peres is often way out front of the Israeli public on peace issues, and he may want to position himself as a centrist by taking a counter-stand from time to time, as he did even with his mentor, Rabin.

“He’s very calculating,” said Zeev Schiff, who analyzes military issues for the daily newspaper Haaretz. “It’s not going to be ‘Yes, Mr. Prime Minister; no, Mr. Prime Minister.’ ”

During his first vote as a member of Rabin’s Cabinet earlier this year, Barak abstained rather than support the government’s negotiating position with the Palestinians--the position that Rabin had approved. He said he was concerned that Israel was making too many concessions too soon, although he tried to make amends by swearing support for the peace process in general.

Rabin responded angrily that any minister who did not back the government ought to resign and whipped Barak back in line. He sent his Interior minister on a speaking tour to sell the government’s plan.

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Since then, fellow Labor Party members insist, Barak has become a convert. They say he wholeheartedly supports the interim agreement for redeploying Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank, which he voted for as a member of Parliament in September.

The 53-year-old Barak is seen as a highly intelligent man who does not suffer fools. With short hair, a secretive half-smile, a fast-clipped walk and a fondness for Rolex watches, he still has a military look.

The eldest of four sons, Barak interrupted his army service twice to study mathematics and physics at Hebrew University, and earned a master’s degree from Stanford in systems analysis. He also is an accomplished pianist, his friends and family say.

According to his brother, Avinoam Brug, before Barak was made general, he took a Hebrew last name, in keeping with a directive of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion.

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Just what Barak earned his medals for is a military secret, but he received five of them as he climbed the army ladder to serve as chief of staff. He retired from his 35-year military career in January to enter the Labor Party and national politics. Rabin made him Interior minister in July.

Critics say the arrogant Barak does not have the patience for politics, but his eye for detail has served him well. According to the Jerusalem Report, “He makes a point of shaking hands with every secretary in every office he visits, asking each her name and then repeating it to make sure he’s heard correctly. He has the ability to make you feel that, for the duration of your encounter with him, no one else exists but you.”

Which is not to say his short political career has been without problems. The newspaper Yediot Aharonot published a story in August accusing Barak of having abandoned his dead and wounded troops during a fatal training accident in 1992. The operation was supposed to be a rehearsal for the assassination of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but a weapon accidentally fired, killing five soldiers.

A livid Barak went on national television to refute the accusation, sputtering in anger and interrupting his host to say that his job was not to treat the wounded but to supervise their evacuation, and that he had done. Then he hinted at the need for “limits” on the press, which made some people question his commitment to democratic rights.

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Following the arrest of Yigal Amir, the confessed assassin of Rabin, Barak again raised eyebrows when he spoke of the need for new security measures that also could conflict with civil rights.

But criticism of him does not seem to stick.

“He knows the way,” said Avigdor Kahalani, a Labor Party member of Parliament. “He’s like a cat. When you throw him, he falls on his feet.”

“He’s always watched his flanks and managed to stay clean,” added Goodman. “He is a brilliant political strategist whose thinking is closest to Rabin’s way of thinking, because he was nurtured by Rabin.”

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But he is not Rabin. The stubborn old pol Rabin was struggling to sell peace to a divided nation, and the comparatively green Barak will have to push even harder to complete his mentor’s work.


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