November 18, 1999
A Barak Diary
Ehud Barak stomps down the aisle of the old, white Boeing 707 that doubles as Israel's Air Force One. He has come to shmooze with the traveling press corps. Close up, he is shorter than expected. He clenches his shoulders like a muscle-bound wrestler. His pudgy face looks as if it was molded from children's modeling dough, his hair as if he still has it trimmed by his old army barber. No $200 stylist at the airport for him.
Barak's brisk, efficient media adviser, David Ziso, describes himself as "the prime minister's personal spokesman and producer." There is indeed an element of performance about all his boss's appearances, even off the record and 30,000 feet over the Mediterranean.
The prime minister is genial and informal, but never totally relaxed. He listens to himself speak. He teases political reporters by their first names, flirts with the women among us, but inoffensively. You won't catch him calling them meidele as Ezer Weizman, another macho general turned politician, might. He asks to be introduced to the half dozen foreign correspondents in the party.
Ziso confides that Barak has taken a conscious decision not to emulate you-know-who and spout sound bites as a substitute for policy. If anything, the Labor leader has gone too far the other way. Like Golda Meir and Menachem Begin -- and for all I know David Ben-Gurion -- he belongs to the didactic school of prime minister.
He mocks that he reads the Hebrew press to find out what's going on in his government, but on the plane there is little dialog. Barak educates. He is determined to be understood, without any room for doubt or confusion. Politics being politics, media being media, he won't always succeed, but it won't be for want of trying.
Standing between the seats, with the journalists craning our necks to hear him above the engine noise and air conditioners, Barak spells out his strategy for the final-status negotiations just starting with the Palestinians.
A nervous press officer, Gadi Baltiansky, late of the Washington embassy, reminds us that it's all "background," attributable to senior officials, et cetera. In fact, at least 90 percent of what Barak said was on the record in his own speeches, stake-outs and press conferences within 24 hours.
His contention that United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for Israel to withdraw from territory captured in the 1967 war, didn't apply equally to the Palestinian track as it did to the Egyptian, Jordanian and even Syrian was less surprising for its content than for the provocative way it was presented.
We -- and the Palestinians -- know that he does not intend to pull back to the old "Green Line" armistice border, but Barak sounded as if he was repudiating the sacred resolution, the template for all Middle East peace efforts for three decades, root and branch. Once the wire services filed their stories, Barak was quick to limit the damage. Of course, Israel was committed to 242, but ...
The nearest to an indiscretion was a mildly sexy description of the way Barak is wooing Syria's Hafez Assad. It remains "not for quoting," even by those anonymous officials. But my own impression, from airborne and terrestrial briefings during the Prime Minister's visit to Paris in early November, is that he knows no more than us about Assad's readiness to make a compromise peace.
Barak says flattering, optimistic things about the ailing Syrian President. Like a girl dropping her handkerchief in an old-fashioned romantic movie, he hopes Assad will pick it up. Maybe yes, maybe no. Assad's son and heir, Bashar, met French President Jacques Chirac the day before Barak. The verdict in the Israeli camp, after Chirac had privately briefed Barak, was that Bashar's mission hadn't made a breakthrough any less likely. Don't hold the front page.
In his public appearances, Barak was confident and assertive -- a man with a mission to complete the circle of peace, but not at the cost of Israel's security. Dare I suggest that he ease off on his military past? We've all read that he was Israel's most decorated warrior. As the world gets to know him, he doesn't have to keep reminding us. The law of diminishing returns soon takes its toll. At one point, he actually said: "Having spent most of my adult life as a general."
On the flight back to Tel-Aviv, the Prime Minister sent his aides to talk to the traveling press corps. We had, it seems, had our ration of quality Barak time. In any case, we were strapped to our seats for most of the four hours. An electric storm was raging over the Mediterranean. The pilot, a veteran air force colonel, turned off the lights and took us way above the clouds and put his foot on the gas.
I watched the lightning flash from my window seat. No one else seemed worried, but I kept wondering if I was going to have the story of a lifetime -- and never be able to write it.