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Gaza conflict can make or break Barak’s fortunes

A week ago Ehud Barak was trailing so badly in Israel’s election campaign that he appeared, awkwardly, on a satirical television show to tout his leadership skills.

The next day, a massive Israeli air assault on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip thrust him center stage in a deadly serious role. It was Barak -- defense minister, decorated war hero, military strategist par excellence -- who planned the operation.

And politically it is Barak, a former prime minister running for his old job, who has the most to gain or lose in the ongoing military offensive in the Palestinian enclave.

If Hamas is battered enough that Israeli border towns are spared its rocket fire, voters are likely to view the 66-year-old Barak as the kind of leader Israel needs. If the operation fails or ignites a regional war, his political fortunes will fade.

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But Barak’s task is complicated by more than just a well-armed Islamic foe. He is obliged to co-manage the conflict with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and so far the sniping among them has made nearly as many headlines in Israel as the aerial combat has.

“Three rivals, the spectrum of whose relationship ranges from deep loathing to utter contempt, now need to lead the country through a war,” columnist Aluf Benn lamented in the newspaper Haaretz.

Israelis are starting to ask whether the three senior ministers, whose relations are further strained by campaigning for the Feb. 10 election, can agree on a coherent military and diplomatic strategy for prevailing over Hamas.

The question matters because the conflict is being fought in the shadow of Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Lacking an exit strategy then, the army got bogged down in a 34-day stalemate that demoralized Israel and emboldened its Arab foes.

Livni, Barak and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are running to replace Olmert, who was forced by corruption scandals to call elections.

Barak, who heads the left-leaning Labor Party in the governing coalition, pushed for Olmert’s ouster, as did Livni, the prime minister’s rival in the centrist Kadima party. Yet they continue to serve in Olmert’s caretaker government.

Netanyahu, head of the right-wing opposition Likud Party, held a narrow lead over Livni in voter surveys before the assault, with Barak a distant third.

Support for the offensive runs high in Israel, putting Livni and Barak in a position to gain on the hawkish front- runner, who favors overthrowing Hamas’ leadership. But the two ministers have jostled to take credit for the operation, prompting calls for a cease-fire between the two.

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Barak caused an uproar this week by discussing a French cease-fire proposal with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner without consulting Olmert or Livni, and then leaking it to Israeli media.

Olmert reprimanded Barak for freelance diplomacy and rebuffed the French plan, which called for a 48-hour truce and negotiations for a lasting cease-fire.

The public spat reflected long-standing divisions among Israeli leaders over how to deal with Hamas, which advocates Israel’s destruction.

Livni speaks vaguely of creating a “new reality” along the border without a long-term re-occupation of Gaza or cease-fire talks she says would legitimize Hamas.

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Barak favors a long-term policy of containing Hamas with military and economic pressure, alternating punitive raids with arranged cease-fires and working with Egypt to keep Gaza’s borders tightly controlled.

A truce he arranged with Egypt’s help in June broke down in November, and he views the current assault as a quick attempt to restore it on better terms for Israel.

In seizing on the French proposal, “Barak sought an early end to the conflict, believing the surprise attack last Saturday was a sufficient show of force,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But Olmert and Livni’s differences with Barak over the truce initiative were a display of discord that troubled attentive Israelis. Ofer Shelah, a military analyst who writes for the newspaper Maariv, surmised that Israel was sliding toward a reflexive escalation of the conflict, an invasion of Gaza by troops and tanks, without an agreed endgame.

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Barak voiced similar criticism of the 2006 Lebanon war, saying then that Israel had neither properly prepared nor chosen the right moment.

This time it fell to Barak, a legendary master of stealth, to make those calculations. As a commando in an elite army unit, he led several highly acclaimed operations to assassinate members of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Last week, Barak mounted a disinformation campaign to lull Hamas into thinking an attack was still days away, then struck on the Jewish Sabbath.

The defense minister’s public approval rating shot up this week, from 34% to 53%, in a weekly survey conducted for Haaretz by the Dialog company. His party made the biggest gains in voter preference, closing part of the gap with Netanyahu’s and Livni’s.

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Barak is trying to recover from an unpopular tenure as prime minister that ended in spiraling bloodshed. Many Israelis hold him at least partly responsible for a Palestinian uprising after failed peace negotiations with the late Yasser Arafat in 2000.

He was ousted after 20 months in office, losing an election in February 2001.

Until last week, his comeback campaign was based on a series of self-deprecating slogans. Billboards declared Barak “is not trendy” and “is not your buddy” -- but a leader.

The conflict in Gaza gives him another chance to prove it.

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boudreaux@latimes.com


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