Ehud Barak is a general and politician who served as the tenth prime minister of Israel from 1999 to 2001. He is also the former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and is one of the most decorated soldiers in Israel’s history.
Early life and education
Ehud Barak was born Ehud Brog on kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon in then-Mandatory Palestine (now northern Israel). He is the eldest of four sons of Yisrael Mendel Brog (1910 – 2002) and Esther Brog (neé Godin, 1914 – 2013). His father was an emigrant from Lithuania.
Ehud’s family, both from his mother’s and father’s sides, experienced tragedy. His paternal grandparents were murdered in Pušalotas, Russian Empire (now part of Lithuania) in 1912, leaving his father orphaned at age two. His maternal grandparents, on the other hand, perished at the Treblinka extermination camp during the Holocaust.
Ehud Brog entered the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, graduating there in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics. He received his master’s degree in engineering-economic systems from Stanford University in California, USA, in 1978.
Ehud Brog joined the IDF in 1959, thus starting a distinguished military career. He Hebraized his name from “Brog” to “Barak” in 1972.
Barak served as a soldier and the commando in the IDF’s elite unit, Sayeret Matkal, during which he led several highly acclaimed operations. These operations include the Operation Isotope in 1972, where he led a mission of rescuing hostages from the hijacked Sabena Flight 571 at Lod Airport. Among Barak’s group of soldiers in the Operation Isotope included another future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was accidentally shot by their fellow commando. Barak also led a covert Israeli raid on Beirut, Lebanon, in 1973, where he disguised as a woman to kill several members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Barak also played a pivotal role in the successful Operation Entebbe in 1976, another counter-terrorist mission to free the hostages of the hijacked Air France aircraft, which forced to land at the Entebbe Airport, Uganda.
In addition to his distinguished role in commando raids, Barak served as a commander during the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
In 1983, Barak was appointed head of intelligence branch at the IDF General Headquarters; in 1986 he was appointed Commander of the IDF Central Command; and in 1987 he was appointed Deputy Chief-of-Staff.
In 1991, Barak rose as Chief of General Staff, the highest-ranking position in the IDF, which he served until 1995. During this period Barak implemented the first Oslo Accords and played a significant role in the negotiations towards the Israel-Jordan peace treaty.
For his courage, operational excellence, and many years of dedicated service to the military, Barak was awarded the Medal of Distinguished Service and four Chief of Staff citations, the Tzalash HaRamatikal, making him one of the only three most decorated soldiers in Israel’s history.
Entrance into politics
Only a few months after retiring from the military, Barak began his public service role when he was appointed Minister of Internal Affairs in June 1995, under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Upon Rabin’s assassination the following November, Shimon Peres assumed the premiership. Under Peres, Barak was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, a position he held until June 1996.
Barak was elected to the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) as a member of the Labor Party in 1996. During this period, he served as a member of the Knesset’s defense committee and foreign affairs department.
Prime Minister of Israel
In the wake of internal elections following Peres’ defeat to Netanyahu in the 1996 Prime Ministerial elections, Barak became leader of the Labor Party.
Barak won in the Prime Ministerial elections on May 17, 1999, beating Netanyahu by a wide margin – an easy victory with a little over than 56% of the popular vote. At the same time, smaller parties upped their seats in the 120-seat Knesset. The election results were viewed as veering away from the hardline policies, especially in relations with the Palestinians, that were upheld by Netanyahu. Barak presented his government to the Knesset the following July 6 as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense.
As Prime Minister, Barak pledged to establish peace in the Middle East. In September 1999 his government resumed peace talks with the PLO. Barak and PLO leader Yasser Arafat signed a pact calling for the creation of a final peace accord by September 2000 and the transfer of Israeli-dominated territory of the West Bank over to the Palestinians. In December 1999 Barak revitalized peace talks with Syria after more than three years of deadlock.
Also in 1999, Barak began a campaign promise to end Israel’s 22-year occupation of Southern Lebanon within a year. Israel eventually did so by withdrawing from Southern Lebanon in May 2000.
But in December 2000, Barak made a surprise announcement that he would resign whilst calling for special elections for the Prime Minister, in which he would run again. In the special elections in February 2001, Barak was defeated by Ariel Sharon, a long-time member of the Likud party and controversial general and ex-defense minister who instigated the 1982 Lebanon War. Barak completed his term in March 2001 and subsequently resigned as Labor Party leader and eventually from the Knesset. After his political career, Barak worked for the private sector for a time.
Return to politics
In 2007, Barak staged a political comeback by getting re-elected to the Labor Party. He was subsequently appointed Deputy Minister and Minister of Defense under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Barak still held these positions as Netanyahu was re-elected Prime Minister in 2009.
In January 2011, Barak announced that he would leave the Labor Party. He, along with other four Labor MKs (members of the Knesset), formed a breakaway party named Atzmaut (“independence” in Hebrew) that was expected to remain in Netanyahu’s coalition-government. The struggling Labor Party previously threatened to force him do so. After Barak’s move, Netanyahu was able to maintain the majority in the Knesset with 66 seats (out of 120), previously having 74 MKs within his majority coalition.
In November 2012, Barak announced his retirement from politics. He was still serving as Defense Minister and Deputy Minister at the time of his announcement. Barak held these posts until he left the government in March 2013.
In 2019, Barak announced his return to politics by forming a new party, to be named the Israel Democratic Party, to challenge Netanyahu in the coming legislative elections. The new party joined the Democratic Union alliance but won only five seats. Barak did not return to the Knesset.
Barak has been married twice. His first marriage was to Nava Cohen in 1968. They have three daughters together. Thus, during Barak’s premiership, Nava became the Spouse of the Prime Minister. They divorced in 2003. In 2007 he married his second wife Nili Priel.
One thing that not many people know about Barak is that he is a trained classical pianist. In fact, he revealed in a 2012 radio interview how playing Chopin calmed him before his first visit with Arafat. He also revealed his discovery of Gustav Mahler’s music at age 40.