Born at Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, Ehud Barak enlisted in the Israeli Army at age 17, and saw significant action leading a commando unit in the 1967 Six-Day War. His superiors noted his exceptional bravery and coolness under fire. When hostilities erupted again in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Barak commanded a tank battalion on the Sinai front. Although his academic education was repeatedly interrupted by calls to active duty, Barak found time to earn an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a master’s degree in economic engineering systems from Stanford University. In addition to his scientific and military interests, he is a talented pianist and linguist.
For many years, he led Israel’s elite anti-terrorist unit, on one occasion successfully storming a hijacked airliner in Tel Aviv, and on another — disguised as a woman — leading a raid against the organization that murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He also played a pivotal role in planning what has been described as the most audacious and perfectly executed special forces operation in history, the Entebbe raid and hostage rescue mission. After serving as head of Israeli Intelligence and Central Command during the 1980s, Barak was appointed army Chief of Staff, his country’s top military leader, in 1991.
After five distinguished years as Chief of Staff, Barak stepped down to become Interior Minister in the government headed by his mentor, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The former warrior who fearlessly faced death on the battlefield brought a different kind of courage to his new job, striving to engage the Palestinian leadership in a productive dialogue. In 1995, when Rabin was assassinated by a domestic extremist, Shimon Peres became Prime Minister, and Barak replaced Peres as Foreign Minister. Barak was propelled to leadership of the Labor Party following Peres’s narrow electoral loss to Benjamin Netanyahu.
Barak became Prime Minister in his own right when he led the Labor Party to a landslide victory in 1999. As Prime Minister, he ended Israel’s 17-year occupation of southern Lebanon and offered unprecedented concessions to the Palestinians. Barak’s peace offer was rejected, the Palestinians broke off negotiations, and the subsequent outbreak of violence led to Barak’s defeat in the next election.
Barak declined an offer to serve as Minister of Defense in the subsequent government headed by Likud leader Ariel Sharon. For the next few years Barak pursued a business career in Israel and the United States, joining private equity firms with interests in security-related industries. In June 2007, Barak was once again elected to lead the Labor Party and was immediately appointed to serve as Minister of Defense in the reorganized coalition government. Although Barak’s Labor Party placed fourth in the parliamentary election of February 2009, he was reappointed as Minister of Defense in a new coalition government led by the Likud Party.
As Defense Minister, Barak continued to advocate a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, while supporting the government’s hard line on security issues. Many of his allies in the Labor Party, frustrated with the breakdown of peace talks, pressured Barak to leave the coalition, forcing him to choose between his party and the government. In January 2011, he shocked the political world by leaving the party he had led for many years. The other Labor members in the cabinet divided over Barak’s decision. Some remained in the coalition alongside him, while others resigned their posts. Ehud Barak continued to serve as Minister of Defense while leading a centrist faction called Independence. At the end of 2012 he announced his decision to retire from electoral politics.
“Two Egyptian divisions were already deployed deep into the Sinai Desert, very close to the Israeli border,” Ehud Barak recalls. “Israel had a very small regular standing army, and it had to deploy immediately along the border to avoid a surprise attack.”
With no time to mobilize reserve officers, the battalion commander asked the raw recruits in the boot camp for a volunteer to lead an ammunition convoy 50 miles in the dark across a desert plain, without roads or landmarks. Ehud Barak stepped forward. Only 17, and undersized for his age, the unathletic youngster seemed an odd candidate for military heroism. An introverted nonconformist who had been expelled from the high school on the communal farm where he was raised, he was nevertheless confident that he could read the map and find his way across the desert.
He succeeded in this mission and many others. As a member of Israel’s most elite commando force, he crossed borders in disguise and rescued hostages from hijacked airplanes. As a rising officer, he commanded a tank battalion in the fiercest battles of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He retired from the military after 36 years as Chief of Staff, commander of the armed forces, and Israel’s most decorated soldier.
On leaving the military, he answered the call of his friend and mentor, Yitzhak Rabin, to enter politics and join Rabin’s cabinet. After Rabin’s death, Ehud Barak became leader of Israel’s Labor Party, and only four years after entering political life, won election as Prime Minister of Israel. As Prime Minister, he brought Israel closer than ever before to a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. As Minister of Defense in a subsequent multi-party coalition government, he continued his work to obtain a lasting peace while preserving his nation’s security.
Your military career is virtually a history of Israel’s struggle to survive: the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the rescue of the Sabena airliner, the hostage rescue at Entebbe. Some of these were extraordinary acts of courage. Did you think about that at the time?
Ehud Barak: Some of it was luck, and some was the result of hyperactivity. We were young people. We looked for action. The tiny dimensions of the Israeli military organization, and of the country, enables you to at least try to be where the action really is, if you are active enough. I remember, for example…
I remember, for example, in the Six-Day War, I commanded a small reconnaissance unit, and it took us just four days to reach the Canal, and immediately I asked myself, okay, nothing is going to happen here anymore so we jumped a few hundred miles to the other side. Maybe something will happen in the Golan Heights, and it happened that we came at the last hours of preparation for climbing on the Golan Heights, so we joined the Golan Heights battle as well, beginning at the northern edge and ending at Quneitra. But, you know, I’m smiling kind of recalling it now, but I should admit the first battles were quite a devastating — kind of revealing — experience.
My first real battle experience was in the Six-Day War. A few operations before then, but on a small scale. And the real experience, the memories of tough, demanding psychological environment where most people are tending to lose their sense of direction and cohesion of action. The vehicles exploding around you, people killed, the bitter, sweet smell of human burned bodies all around, the feeling of being not in full control.
You are not in full control but at the same time you have what I call the advantage of being a commander.
I always used to tell young officers — since I entered battle as an officer, I never experienced it as a soldier — I told them, “You are lucky to become officers in operations since officers have to care about what happens with their unit. They have a commitment to lead. So you will be always under the burden of identifying what happens, deciding what should be done, issuing orders, and looking around at someone following them — that something happens and then it changes the situation. And the other side also is acting and everything is flowing around you and you have to continuously keep it running. What is your situation? What is happening? What should be done about it? How to spread the orders and how to watch they are fulfilled?”
And under battle, under exercises, it’s unbelievably — the simplest operations become unbelievably tough. It’s like burden on all the people. People become paralyzed. Some of them that were so kind of easygoing and kind of hyper before battle become totally paralyzed. They don’t hear well. They tend — everyone tends to stay behind cover. To move a unit to assault is infinitely complicated. You know, it’s — first of all, personally you are paralyzed by the shooting. You are confident that once you raise your head over you will get a bullet at your head. It’s only the eyes of your own soldiers that you know that they know that you are committed to lead them. They expect you to do something. You cannot avoid it. You cannot leave there and leave them kind of paralyzed.
They will sink into it. They need this commitment that has been shaped into you, during the training, to do something. All of the group knows what you have committed yourself to do. It wakes you up and moves you to lead the assault. I believe something Tito said — the late dictator of Yugoslavia who was head of a great partisan movement during the war.
Tito said that a good military unit is a social cell where shame — the fear of being kind of shamed by the rest of the group — is stronger than the fear of death. And there is something true about it, that works among youngsters well-trained and somehow understanding that they are serving a cause which is somehow more important than their own. No one really bothers you in battle with this kind of overstructure of ideology and devotion and so on. And we know, unfortunately, from world experience, that you can lead people to highly devoted and professional military activities under terrible kind of regimes with terrible ideologies. But somehow, with youngsters, it works. If they have got young leaders and they are trained together, they create this kind of self-reliance of the unit, so that they are not dependent on what happens in other parts of the battlefield, but they rely upon each other. It works, and they can reach kind of activities that are against, may I say, the individual instincts of anyone in the group.
What’s it like to make a decision under those circumstances? Is it instinct? Imagination? Is it a cold, hard calculation?
Ehud Barak: In a battlefield situation it’s a combination of responses that have been imprinted upon us. We commanders imprint them upon ourselves, but the soldiers feel it too, certain automatic responses that make everyone feel better. And then it’s a swift decision. Some things happen in a split second and are not the result of huge analytical work.
On the battlefield itself, no one will move if you are not moving. I used to tell my company commanders “If I, the battalion commander, will not go to a fire position, open fire and then give commands, no one will move. And if you company commanders will not be the first one to climb to fire position, every other tank crew will find some excuse not to climb, and we have to do it the first time.” You don’t have time. You somehow — I believe that many good commanders in the field just somehow can make their overall judgment very quickly. I can compare it to something in which I’m very weak but I watch it. The way that tennis players are responding. They’re not calculating. If you were to write the Newtonian equations of the moving of the tennis ball, what you should have done, or not to mention the Schrödinger equations of it, you will never end it. You’ve got to do what should be done and you don’t assess whether you should do it this way or this way, just do what should be done.
It’s only on the higher level, when you command a division or a corps, that you have enough time to contemplate. But then you face the other end of the spectrum; you think you have control, but if you are honest with yourself you know that you don’t have full control. It is really decided by the fighting spirit and the performance and the determination of the young company commanders, and at most, the battalion commanders in the direct line of fire.
What are you thinking when you put on a pair of overalls to make an assault on terrorists?
Ehud Barak: First of all, I had a lot of experiences where I had to change dress.
I still remember an operation where we had some of our pilots taken by the Egyptians during the War of Attrition. They intercepted some of those with SAM missiles, and we decided that the only way to convince the Egyptians to release them is by taking some Egyptian pilots and bring them to Israel and then suggest that we will kind of exchange them. And the only way that we found was to stop at a road leading to an Egyptian Air Force (base), back deep in the Nile Valley, by appearing as an Egyptian military police to move them from the road and to take over some pilots. I initiated such a raid and I was one of the two policemen with the motorcycles, fully dressed as an Egyptian MP with someone who talked Baladic — kind of a street Egyptian — much better than I could, in a much more convincing way, and we really made it. And we established a kind of check post on the road to an Egyptian Air Force base and we began to take vehicles at midnight. There was not a lot of transportation. We ended up with 40 people in some six or eight trucks and vehicles, and not a single man in uniform.
They were all Egyptian civilians. One had a small pistol. Years later, when I was already prime minister, I told (Egyptian President) Mubarak this story. He joked — he was himself a commander of the Egyptian Air Force — and he told me that Egyptian pilots are more disciplined; they are not out in the streets after midnight. They’re asleep at the air force base. But he was furious even in retrospect by the kind of chutzpah that we had, to take Egyptian uniforms and motorcycles and so on.
I looked at the dressing in (airplane mechanic) overalls as just a means to heighten the surprise. We were trying to storm a jet, a Sabena airliner with some 107 hostages in it. They were being held by a group of terrorists — two gunmen and two females with hand grenades, some ammunition, some pistols and some explosives. We realized that unless we can surprise them, so they’re defending themselves a split second after they realize we’re attacking them, they will have enough time to connect and activate the explosive or to throw some hand grenades at the passengers and explode the whole thing.
First I thought of taking it over at night. I used to do almost everything at night. You can come closer. But there were a lot of hesitations in the upper echelon. Moshe Dayan and the chief of staff, and even Golda Meier in the Jerusalem office all hesitated. “Maybe we can negotiate with them. Maybe they will weaken and give up.” So we found ourselves having to do it in the daytime. In the daytime you cannot come close.
One of the generals said, “Why don’t we go closer to the airplane, kind of disguise ourselves or cover ourselves as mechanics while preparing it for taking off?” And we brought — we even took some hundred young soldiers and some adults, gave them prison kind of suits to represent the Arab relieved terrorists that are coming from the prison, so they will see that everything is okay. And we took ourselves in a kind of trolley, that small car that are working in airports. We created a train and we went there with overalls and nothing but small pistols underneath and some ladders to climb it. And we trained ourselves for about half an hour, maybe 45 minutes, how to storm the airplane, and how to open the emergency door from the outside, and how to climb from the nose wheel gear into the cockpit directly. And we went to do it and I felt — what really worried me is the possibility that we will do everything okay but in the few seconds since the beginning of the assault and the actual facing of these terrorists, they can explode the whole thing together with us, and there was no solution for it. We just had to do it in an effective way.
Were you ever afraid during any of these operations?
Ehud Barak: Fear is something very normal. You have to overcome it. I remember it more as an experience of pre-battle, before the operation, than something that really strikes you during it. It comes to your awareness only when you sit idle, where some circumstances impose a lack of action upon you and you can’t do anything. Then it works on you. It works on every human being, including experienced commanders. But when you see the people around you, you think there’s a kind of luck that joins us, not just that led me into this unit or someone else to another place, but also during battle.
I’ve seen some of my best friends, who could have become prime ministers or professors and leaders of Israeli society in every field of life — just out of something that no one could control — they got series of bullets in the chest or head or neck. I still remember a lieutenant colonel, at the height of the Yom Kippur War — a brilliant officer and brilliant scientist. In fact, in his youth he was a commander in the parachutists, and then a commander in the leading high-tech confidential unit of that time. When he heard there was a battle, he came like a horse that smells it, and he joined us as a fifth member of the group.
We were at the height of the battle, shooting at the Egyptian tanks from some thousand meters, and Egyptian soldiers just under our feet, and the Egyptian missiles from the flank, from some two-and-a-half kilometers. And he was shot at from maybe ten yards from someone that we have seen before. We have tried to crush him with the — how you call it — the chains of the tank. But when we rolled back to crush someone else, it came out that he comes out of his fox hole and raised his Kalashnikov once again and shot my friend here. And I still remember, you know, how he kind of— he just turned to me and said something that is kind of — maybe a foot-and-a-half kind of stream of blood from his neck. And I tried to stop it, and he was heavy enough to slip into the turret, and he lost his life a few minutes later. I lost my best friends in the battlefield, especially in the Yom Kippur War.
Where were you when Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur in 1973?
The war caught me at Stanford University. I was a graduate student maybe some six weeks. You know, I came to this — ’73 year and just began, you know. And I was called from Yom Kippur in California, Yom Kippur was already — you know, coming ten hours later than in Israel so we were just after the Yom Kippur ceremony in the kind of Hillel auditorium of Stanford University, when I woke up in the morning and was told that there is a war in Israel. I called the attaché in the embassy and said, “I’m a lieutenant colonel. I’m moving immediately.” So the general told me, “Oh, I don’t think we are missing a major war.” I told him “What is—” I asked him, “What is we? You are here on official loan. I’m still a commander. I cannot afford being out of the country even if in a not very serious kind of war. I’m going there. I will call you from New York.” And I went immediately to the airport, San Francisco airport. I kissed my wife. My eldest daughter was maybe two years old.
She is a corporate lawyer in Manhattan now, but she was only two years old then. I went back, and I couldn’t call my wife for three weeks. She was left in the hands of the Palo Alto Jewish community and some students that stayed there.
I commanded a tank battalion in some of the most bitter battles I ever participated in. And I still remember when I called her from Suez after we kind of encircled the Third Army at the end of the war, and I began to read to her the names of our friends that were lost, most of them company commanders and battalion commanders that lost their lives since they were the first to climb to a fire position. And I remember her crying in the telephone. She was watching CBS, something that was inconceivable for us, Egyptian infantry crossing the Canal. Israeli soldiers and officers prisoners at the hands of Egyptians, and she couldn’t hear from me.
It took me four or five months to come back to Stanford to get her. I could not continue my studies. But the memory was there, how good it was, and I came there five years later to complete my graduate studies as a colonel.