The General Takes Charge

"I'm pretty good when the battle begins," Ehud Barak told Bob Shrum, his newly hired American ad man, a few days into his campaign. The ex-general running for prime minister of Israel quickly proved it. Some pundits called Barak's stunning landslide victory over incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu last week a tribute to his aggressive U.S.-style election tactics. Others pointed to a backlash against Netanyahu's dark, Nixonian personality. But for many Israelis the triumph was mainly about Barak himself, the tough little Sabra with the chest full of medals and the 180 IQ whose campaign changed the face of Israeli politics. "This victory belongs to all of Israel," Barak told a roaring crowd of 300,000 in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square--many of whom saw him as heir to the martyred Yitzhak Rabin. Blunt and defiant as always, he added: "I will be the prime minister of those who voted against me as well."

Israelis are a skeptical lot--hardly easy touches for bring-us-together rhetoric on election night. Especially in an election that, while it handed a 56 percent margin to Barak, has fragmented Israel's Parliament, the Knesset, as never before. But last week many were almost ready to believe Barak. An almost giddy optimism is sweeping the nation, a sentiment that has more to do with relief than anything else. Why? Barak's winning slogan, engineered by Shrum and Clinton's famed "war room" adviser James Carville, tells it all. It was a barb aimed at Netanyahu, and aired almost hourly by Barak's U.S. spinmeisters: "Stuck, Stuck, Stuck." For three years Netanyahu had blocked peace with the Palestinians, sown discord between religious and ethnic factions and overseen an economy in a rut. "Ta-Cou-Ah, Ta-Cou-Ah, Ta-Cou-Ah," as Carville recited it in his Bayou Hebrew. "Stuck. That's what resonated with the Israelis."

The question is whether Barak, who must form a coalition government within six weeks, is really the man to get things unstuck. On paper, of course, he's a phenomenon: a Stanford-educated systems analyst who is also an accomplished classical pianist. During a 35-year military career, Barak became Israel's most decorated and celebrated soldier. Squat and apple-cheeked, at 57 Barak bears more resemblance to a Borscht Belt comic than a commando who once killed Arabs in hand-to-hand combat; in one of his best-known feats, he dressed up as a woman in 1973 to mount a raid on a PLO safe house in west Beirut. Now Barak says he wants to make peace--and like his mentor Rabin, another fabled soldier, he has the battlefield credibility to keep the hawks at bay.

He also has a natural ally in Bill Clinton, whose relations with Netanyahu were, at best, frosty. Still, longtime Mideast hands caution that it took Rabin years before he was ready to shake Yasir Arafat's hand on the White House lawn. "I don't know that we know about Barak's real intentions," says a senior Clinton-administration official. "He drapes himself in the mantle of Rabin. But it also depends which Rabin--the Rabin of '92 is not the same as the Rabin of '95." And Israelis who know Barak well say he has more than a little of the smug, autocratic Netanyahu in him. He's a man who discards those no longer useful to him (after taking over Labor, for instance, Barak consigned longtime leader Shimon Peres to a backbench role). "He lacks genuine human warmth," says an old Army colleague who has known him for more than 25 years. "He's very smart, but he's not as smart as he thinks he is, and he rarely listens. All his mistakes will come from this overconfidence."

Barak will need to do a lot of listening in coming weeks. The downside of his landslide--the second direct vote for a P.M. in Israel's history--is that many Israelis also felt free to vote their hearts in the Knesset and opt for small, single-issue parties. The vote tally was hardly an endorsement of unity. Israeli politics has become a topsy-turvy world where formerly downtrodden groups like Russian immigrants and Middle Eastern Jews have become electoral kingpins. Even Barak's One Israel party, the successor to Labor, lost eight seats, and with 26 has barely one fifth of the Knesset's total.

Strikingly, the biggest winner was Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party. It has a strong following among Israel's Sephardic (non-European) Jews, who back Netanyahu; Shas scared many Israelis by calling for the Jewish equivalent of an Islamic fundamentalist state. "Bibi lost, but his policies did not," says one Netanyahu adviser. "Jews don't know what type of people they want to be or what kind of state they want to have," warns David Hartman, a progressive Orthodox rabbi.

Those social fissures will be reflected in almost any government Barak forms. If the prime minister-elect is serious about creating a broad-based government, then he would logically turn to Likud. But a partnership with Likud, under the caretaker leadership of superhawk Ariel Sharon, could hamstring Barak in his dealings with the Palestinians. However, a shotgun marriage with Shas would give Barak greater freedom to maneuver with the Arabs, given the religious party's consistent support for the peace process. But large numbers of Barak's staunchest supporters, including the secular Russians, would rebel at the sight of bearded Sephardic rabbis taking seats in a Barak cabinet. "It's like choosing between AIDS and cancer," says one middle-of-the-road Labor Knesset member. "With Likud we'll be more limited on foreign policy. But with Shas, Barak will terribly disappoint the party faithful."

Either way, Barak will quickly find himself under pressure to act on Mideast peace. He made bold campaign promises to resume the orderly handover of land quickly to the Palestinians and to get Israeli soldiers out of south Lebanon--which has become his nation's mini-Vietnam--within a year. But Barak's stated preferences may collide with some basic realities on the ground. Syrian President Hafez Assad has repeatedly ruled out any peace agreement between Israel and his vassal government in Beirut without a comprehensive peace settlement that gives him back all of the Golan Heights.

The Clinton administration wants Barak to jump-start talks with Yasir Arafat. The central issue: a final, comprehensive peace agreement that would settle such thorny topics as the future status of Jerusalem and the dozens of Jewish settlements scattered throughout the West Bank. While Palestinians were generally happy last week--"Barak might be tough, but Netanyahu was a nonnegotiator," says Saeb Erekat, one of Arafat's top aides--the P.M.-elect may already be headed for a confrontation. During the campaign, he sketched out four "red lines" on security that could never be compromised in any final-status peace deal. Arafat is bound to raise the ante--and last week one of his top aides reaffirmed the Palestinian leader's intention to proclaim an independent state by the year-end.

Still, Barak will get the benefit of any doubt from Clinton, whose centrist Democratic Party was something of a template for the prime minister-elect's One Israel. Barak's victory marks Clinton's latest electoral success as his political spore wafts its way around the world. Barak's main U.S. adviser, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, has now helped to engineer center-left victories in Britain, Germany and South Africa (British P.M. Tony Blair recommended him to Barak). Greenberg has used tactics similar to the ones that brought Clinton to the White House in 1992. The technique: mainly co-opting the other side's best issues and warding off attacks with a fast, "war room" response team.

In Israel, Barak needed to convince voters that he would be a tough negotiator in peace talks with the Palestinians and continue Netanyahu's crackdown on terrorism--and he did it brilliantly. Netanyahu tried to apply the same strategy he used in his '96 win, when he raised questions about Peres, Rabin's peace partner. But with Barak and his attack-ad response team, the issue backfired. Firing back at a Bibi ad that portrayed Barak as a closet dove, the Barak team repeatedly aired a TV bio about the general's career as a superpatriot. "Every time Bibi said he was Mr. Security, the other side would show you another medal on Barak's chest," sighed one Netanyahu aide. "When you're fighting a Peres who never served in the Army, that's one thing. But when you're up against an ex-chief of staff who's killed more Arabs than even you have, it's a problem."

Barak also benefited from Clinton's relative invisibility--although presidential advisers like Carville became celebrities in his campaign. In '96 Clinton all but embraced Peres publicly. That struck some undecided voters as heavy-handed meddling in domestic Israel politics, driving thousands toward Netanyahu. This time the president kept a low profile--but worked with the Palestinians behind the scenes to blunt security issues that might have helped Netanyahu. Clinton also went public with a letter to Arafat that fell just short of endorsing statehood, helping to persuade the PLO to postpone a unilateral declaration. "It was not accidental," says Hasan Abdel Rahman, head of the PLO office in Washington. "We were asked by the U.S. and by our friends in Europe, and by Arab brothers, to postpone the declaration and... not to give a pretext to Mr. Netanyahu." Arafat also managed to keep Hamas terrorists quiet (several bombings helped throw the election to Netanyahu in '96).

In the end Netanyahu found he simply had too few allies--both domestically and abroad. The most damaging defector was Netanyahu's ex-Defense minister, Yitzhak Mordecai, who ran against him and then bowed out on the final weekend, throwing his support to Barak. As the numbers began turning against him, Netanyahu's self-assurance crumbled. Usually a polished debater, he fumbled and squirmed in his chair in a televised debate with Mordecai (Barak wisely stayed away). "All your friends have deserted you," Mordecai taunted him. "Maybe there is something really wrong with you, with your values, your behavior and your trustworthiness?"

So desperate were Netanyahu's forces, NEWSWEEK has learned, that in the last few weeks they phoned around Washington for new consultants to supplement his U.S. adviser, the secretive Arthur Finkelstein. "Barak didn't win the election. Netanyahu lost it," says Netanyahu's Finance minister, Meir Sheetrit. "His campaign was like the Titanic. You could see the iceberg coming, but it was too late to turn the ship."

Barak, meanwhile, avoided every rock and shoal. Greenberg, Carville and Shrum say the Laborite is one of the best candidates they've ever had. "He led the campaign in the way that a general leads," says Greenberg. His toughest battles, however, may lie ahead.