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Barak a Tragic Figure in Mideast Drama

On a spring night 21 months ago, the cheers of a euphoric crowd ringing in his ears, Israel's newly elected leader Ehud Barak stood in the square named for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and pledged in a voice that cracked with fervor to carry on his slain mentor's peace legacy.

For many Israelis, the moment was an emotional touchstone — marking, they believed, the final turn in a long and difficult road toward a lasting Mideast peace. An accord with the Palestinians seemed possible, as well as a regional rapprochement with hostile neighbors like Syria. 

Now, with peace hopes in tatters, a bloody Palestinian insurgency in its fifth month and hawkish Ariel Sharon having triumphed at the polls, some commentary about the electoral contest took on an elegiac tone: How did it all go so wrong, so fast, for Barak? 

"I see him as a figure out of Greek tragedy, really, with all that he tried to achieve, and also with the hubris that brought him to this point," said Arieh Caspi, a columnist for the respected Haaretz newspaper. "He's a brave man, a tragic man ... he sacrificed himself." 

In the final days and hours of the campaign, Barak the ex-general kept to his usual soldierly discipline, stoically insisting he was at peace with himself and believed he had done right by Israel. 

"I presented before you the painful concessions that we will have to make for peace," he said in a front-page message to Israeli voters printed in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper the day before the vote. "The next war — with its killing, suffering, weeping, orphans, bereavement — can be prevented." 

Not everyone, though, was willing to accept the view that Barak was a martyr to the peace cause, a man who incurred voters' wrath primarily with the sweeping concessions he was prepared to make to the Palestinians. Critics argued that his personal and political style sometimes made him his own worst enemy. 

From his first days in office, Barak earned a reputation for arrogance. A former army chief of staff accustomed to giving crisp orders, he nettled associates with his tendency to brush advice aside. 

He disliked delegating, even to the point that he refused to fill crucial positions in his own government. Throughout this term in office, he served as his own defense minister. 

All this did little to endear him to subordinates; as Barak presided over his final Cabinet meeting before the vote, media accounts said he appealed to his own ministers to be sure to vote for him. 

In the political arena, there was little evidence of the strategic brilliance for which Barak was famed in his military days. As he struggled to keep his fractious governing coalition together, he made compromises that proved repugnant to his core constituencies. 

Secular Israelis watched with dismay his increasingly desperate efforts to curry favor among ultra-religious parties — who then threw their backing to Sharon. 

At first, Barak's lack of a slick political persona — diminutive and pudgy, he lisps and often delivers speeches in a wooden monotone — offered a refreshing contrast to his telegenic predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. But gradually, voter disillusionment set in. 

Even on his traditional home turf, that of military affairs, Barak drew poor public reviews. 

As bitter Israeli-Palestinian confrontations in the West Bank and Gaza stretched into a fifth month, many Israelis felt Barak had not acted strongly enough to quell the violence — even as the outside world criticized Israel for using excessive force; most of the uprising's almost 400 fatalities have been Palestinians. 

Throughout months of talks with the Palestinians, Barak never succeeded in forging a real rapport with Yasser Arafat. And he prevented some associates who enjoyed a warm relationship with the Palestinian leader — most notably elder statesman Shimon Peres — from playing a major role in peace negotiations. 

But Barak defended his coolly pragmatic approach to peacemaking. Asked toward the end of his campaign about his relationship with Arafat, he replied that he did not feel the need to like or be liked by someone in order to do business with them. 

Despite his insistence that he had no regrets, Barak expressed a few in the final days before the vote. He apologized for the police killings of 13 Arab citizens of Israel in October riots, but Arab leaders said it was too little, too late. 

Acknowledging anger over his policy reversals, Barak wrote an open letter to voters saying such backtracking was all in the interest of reaching his peace goals. Not surprisingly, he used a military analogy to explain the political tactics that had so alienated some. 

"I knew I was going into a minefield," he wrote, "where I would have to zigzag sometimes to cross safely."