JERUSALEM — Ehud Barak has barely made the transition from a military to political career, but his appointment as interior minister has already fueled speculation about whether he will become the Labor Party's future leader.
Barak, the former Israel Defense Force chief of staff, endured a stormy nomination and approval process in the Knesset last month after an Israeli newspaper report renewed controversy over his alleged role in a tragic military accident nearly three years ago.
The continuing repercussions of that incident are likely to follow Barak — who stepped down as chief of staff earlier this year — in his new political career.
Many observers see Barak as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's chosen successor to head the Labor Party. Barak's Cabinet appointment is believed to be Rabin's way of presenting him with an opportunity to prove himself in civilian life.
Barak, who has never denied harboring ambitions to be prime minister, holds political views similar to those of Rabin: strongly pro-peace, while not being an out-and-out dove.
"I'm in the middle of the political spectrum," Barak recently told supporters at Labor Party headquarters, "not because it's the middle — but because it's right."
Like the prime minister, Barak is deliberately vague about how he envisions a final settlement with the Palestinians, and about whether he would agree to a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.
Barak's appointment comes as the Rabin government enters the final and most difficult phase of its four-year term: extending the agreement with the Palestinians in the West Bank by November 1996, the scheduled date for Israel's national elections.
Given Barak's expertise in matters of defense — he is the most decorated soldier in Israeli history — his appointment was intended to help allay fears and doubts in the public about the peace process. These are fears and doubts that Rabin himself, in a recent interview with The New York Times, admitted that he also shares.
But Barak's appointment was accompanied by renewed controversy over the accident that occurred on Nov. 5, 1992, at the IDF's Tze'elim training and practice area in the Negev. Barak was among three top-level IDF officers present when a live missile was fired accidentally, killing five Israeli soldiers and wounding six others.
In its July 7 issue, the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, Israel's largest newspaper, alleged that Barak had abandoned the wounded soldiers by leaving the area in his helicopter.
The newspaper further claimed that Barak had given conflicting testimony to commissions investigating the incident, suggesting that he had engaged in a cover-up effort to protect himself and other senior IDF officers from possible culpability.
On July 13, as millions of Israelis watched enthralled, Barak battled with top television talk show interviewer Nissim Mishal about the Yediot article.
Barak flayed the newspaper as "power-crazed" and the expose as "false, evil and dilletantish."
He cited statements by other officers present at the scene to the effect that he had left only after a huge Sikorsky medevac helicopter had landed and doctors were loading the wounded aboard.
"A chief of staff is not a medical orderly," Barak told the television interviewer. "His job is not to tend the wounded, when others are doing that already. His job is to keep his head, to survey the whole scene — and to act so as to ensure safe and speedy evacuation."
This, Barak asserted, is what he had done, personally directing the arrival of the rescue helicopter and ground-based medical teams. His own helicopter was small and not equipped to ferry wounded men, he maintained, adding that he had flown away 45 minutes or more after the accident, to brief the prime minister.
Just as Yediot's first allegation was demonstrably false, the charge of evidence-rigging was false and malicious, Barak continued.
"I have given 35 years of my life to serving this country," he said. "I have been shot at, and shot men dead from as close as I am now to you. How did the hand that wrote these things against me not tremble?"
After the interview, several commentators were quick to point out that Barak's military record, however courageous, did not render him immune to criticism, especially now that he was embarking on a political career.
Media criticism is the essence of democratic politics, Ha'aretz columnist Orit Shohat noted. Her point was well made: Lifelong professional soldiers who find that difficult to understand ought not to make the switch from the authoritarian, sheltered life of the officers' mess to the brittle and exposed glass house that is the politician's lot.
But this response, which was echoed in other newspapers, may not reflect the reactions of the millions of television viewers who watched the former chief of staff's consummate TV performance.
Opinion polls showed that Barak had indeed made a strong impact on the general public, though a significant minority still want Tze'elim investigated further.
For Rabin, Barak's performance was convincing enough. He formally announced the appointment of Barak to his Cabinet on July 16, and the Knesset approved it three days later.
In his hourlong television performance, Barak barely mentioned the prime minister.
But he pointedly praised two key figures in the Likud opposition, Benjamin Begin, the son of Menachem Begin, the late former Likud leader and prime minister, and Dan Meridor, the former minister of justice.
Both men publicly stood by Barak and rejected Yediot's allegations against him.
Sensitive political observers suggested that this could foreshadow new political alliances in the future.
After all, if the government succeeds in pushing through its peace policy, and a separate Palestinian entity arises in the West Bank and Gaza, the classical Likud platform of a "Greater Israel" would be rendered anachronistic.
By the same token, the classical pro-compromise platform of Labor and the left would be fulfilled in large measure, and would no longer therefore constitute a forward-looking political program.
The next generation of political leaders — with Barak perhaps prominent among them — will be looking for new ideas and new coalitions.
But Barak is not out of the woods yet. Yediot is hitting back, publishing additional evidence that it says supports its allegations. The families of the men killed at Tze'elim continue to demand a new inquiry. Barak, on television, said he has no objections to one, but considers it "superfluous."