The Comeback / Man of the Hour

Israeli politicians usually admire Winston Churchill and quote him often, as Ehud Barak did, too, when he was prime minister. But since he lost the 2001 election to Ariel Sharon, Barak has adopted a different role model: General Charles de Gaulle. That is no trivial choice for an Israeli leader. De Gaulle is renowned here mostly for imposing an embargo on Israel during the Six-Day War and his insulting remarks about Jews. Barak is much more interested in de Gaulle's 1958 return to power, when he was called upon to save France from the crisis of the Algerian insurrection. It seems likely that is how Barak dreamed of his own return to leadership: the savior called upon at a time of military distress.

The circumstances leading to Barak's current appointment as defense minister appear to have been scripted. For a year, since the Second Lebanon War, the national agenda has been "defense-oriented": the advancing Iranian nuclear program and that country's threats of destruction, Syrian rearmament, Hassan Nasrallah's threatening cynicism and in the last week the Hamas conquest of Gaza and the Strip's becoming an Islamist terror entity. The opportunity fell into Barak's hands now. All the books he's read and positions he's filled were preparing him for this moment. Barak is the "man of the hour" as David Ben-Gurion was before the establishment of the state or Moshe Dayan was in the 1950s and ahead of the Six-Day War, two other men Barak sees as role models.

Barak certainly knows it is better to take a job after a failed manager and not replace a charismatic and popular leader. Fortunately, he is taking over for Amir Peretz, whose defense record is mostly the stuff satire is made of. Ehud Olmert wasn't as lucky, climbing into Sharon's seat.

Barak adds the much-lacking charisma to Olmert's coalition. There are great expectations of him and he faces far more complex tests than his tiny victory over Ami Ayalon in the primary.

His unabashed aspiration to inherit Olmert's position, and not just to serve in his government, will now shadow the entire decision-making process in defense and diplomatic matters. For Olmert, it would be better to bring Benjamin Netanyahu into the Finance Ministry, to balance the Barak influence and demonstrate national unity in the face of Khaled Meshal and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but even Olmert - Mr. Politics - will have trouble cooking up that concoction.

As a military strategist and leader, Barak's thinking is planted deep in a commando unit, in raids and surgical strikes. That's where he grew up and where he has stayed. Multi-divisional armored battled bore him. The prime minister Barak most admires, Yitzhak Shamir, is respected by Barak for his record as the commander who rehabilitated Mandate-era paramilitary organization Lehi. Barak was born under Mandatory rule, but grew up in the state and never got to fight the British. It is no coincidence he has often said if he were Palestinian, he would join a terror organization. If he were given a map of the Middle East and asked to mark targets, he would certainly prefer to draw Nasrallah and Meshal's heads and not storming up to the Litani River.

Barak likes to quote de Gaulle from his days as a colonel in the French army between the world wars. He advanced at a snail's pace, leaving him time for military thinking and writing books that attacked the position of the military establishment in Paris. So de Gaulle wrote on leadership: "There can be no power without mystery. There must always be a 'something' which others cannot altogether fathom, which puzzles them, stirs them, and rivets their attention.... Nothing more enhances authority than silence."

Barak assimilated this in his campaign for Labor Party leadership. Now he must demonstrate that he is able to be unfathomable at the Defense Ministry, and not again fall victim to problematic conduct like when he was premier. Then, too, Barak replaced the unpopular Netanyahu but wasted that credit very quickly.