Ehud Barak, Israel’s 10th prime minister, was born the eldest of four brothers on Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon on February 12, 1942. In 1959, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the IDF, and accepted into Israel’s most elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal. He would later go on to command the unit.
As a soldier, the young Barak quickly distinguished himself for his ingenuity, bravery and coolness under fire. He participated in a number of publicized commando operations, most notably when he led a raid inside Beirut disguised as a woman.
Barak also helped plan the hostage rescue operation at Entebbe, Uganda in 1976, and led the hostage rescue attempt on a hijacked Sabena airliner while disguised as a plane mechanic. In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Barak commanded a tank regiment which, among other things, helped rescue a beleaguered paratrooper battalion suffering heavy losses in the Chinese Farm in the Sinai Desert.
Barak went on to serve as head of military intelligence, and was later appointed by then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin as the Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. He retired from military life in 1995 after 35 years of service, by which time he had become Israel’s most decorated soldier.
During his time in the army, Barak earned a B.A. in Physics and Mathematics from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and then a M.A. in Economic Engineering Systems from Stanford University.
Immediately following his military service, Barak joined the Labor Party. As a politician, Barak served as Minister of the Interior and then as Minister of Foreign Affairs when Shimon Peres replaced the slain Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister.
He was elected to the Knesset in 1996, where he served as a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In 1996, after Peres lost the premiership to Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak became the leader of the Labor Party.
In 1999, Barak defeated Netanyahu in national elections, becoming Israel’s 10th prime minister. His most significant act as prime minister was to order the withdrawal of all IDF troops from Southern Lebanon, effectively ending Israel’s controversial 17-year presence there. The move was heralded by many as a brave and long-overdue decision, while others harshly criticized it, for its perceived security threat, and for the manner of its overnight execution.
Barak also attempted, and failed, to reach a peace agreement with Syria. At the Camp David Summit in 2000, mediated by then-U.S. president Bill Clinton, Barak met with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. The talks failed and shortly afterwards the Second Intifada broke out, unleashing an unprecedented wave of terror attacks against Israelis.
In 2001, against the backdrop of failed peace negotiations and escalating Palestinian violence, Barak was soundly defeated by Ariel Sharon of the Likud in elections for prime minister, which Barak himself had called.
After several years in the private sector, Barak returned to politics in 2005, but dropped out of the race to lead the Labor Party after polls showed he was unpopular with voters. In 2007, he made yet another attempt to regain control of the Labor Party, and succeeded in June of that year. Shortly thereafter, he was sworn in as minister of defense by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert.
As defense minister, Barak oversaw Operation Cast Lead, a three-week IDF campaign inside the Gaza Strip launched in the wake of ongoing rocket fire from the coastal territory at civilian targets inside southern Israel. The operation was viewed by most Israelis as a well-executed and necessary military act of defense, but came under international criticism for what was seen as excessive and disproportionate use of force inside the densely populated Gaza Strip.
In the 2009 elections, the Barak-led Labor Party won only 13 out of 120 Knesset seats, relegating Israel's once strongest party to the fourth largest. Much of the blame for the historic loss of mandates was directed at Barak, who continued to disappoint many Labor purists by agreeing to keep the party in a Likud-led government in exchange for the defense portfolio.