JERUSALEM - Ehud Barak looks pale and weary these days. There is a tinge of bitterness in his voice and an air of sad resignation to his public appearances.
Once Israel's most highly decorated soldier, an elite commando and the army's top general, the acting Prime Minister faces the distinct possibility of suffering one of the worst political defeats in Israel's history.
Isolated even in his own party, he is widely perceived to be arrogant, aloof, secretive, inconsistent and weak.
It's a dramatic transformation. Just 20 months ago he was elected Prime Minister with an unprecedented majority and 100,000 supporters danced and sang until dawn in Tel Aviv's main square to celebrate.
He came to power as a hard-nosed, security-conscious general, promising to forge a "peace of the brave" with a grand strategy that would usher in a new era in the Middle East. He vowed to withdraw Israeli troops from the unpopular 18-year war in Lebanon, to make peace with Syria, to recharge Israel's economy and to end a half-century of conflict with the Palestinians.
In the last election, Mr. Barak won two-thirds of the crucial swing votes cast by Russian immigrants, he swept 95% of the votes from Israel's Arab citizens and he led a new, reinvigorated centre-left coalition.
With the hopes of the nation behind him, he welded together a broad coalition with an overwhelming majority in the Knesset.
Now, public opinion polls show him running up to 20 percentage points behind Ariel Sharon, 72, the controversial Likud party leader, in the run-up to Tuesday's elections. The same polls suggest up to 15% of voters -- mostly Mr. Barak's supporters -- are so disillusioned they may not even bother to cast a ballot.
"We could run a broomstick in this election and still beat Barak," boasted Limor Lavant, a Likud leader and one of Mr. Sharon's top aides.
A failed Prime Minister who has alienated friends and foes alike, Mr. Barak has seen his coalition crumble and his majority wither to barely 30 of 120 seats in the Knesset. He has alienated Russian immigrants, infuriated ultra-orthodox Jews with an aborted proposal to launch a "secular revolution" and enraged Israeli Arabs with his government's attempts to crush a four-month-old Palestinian uprising.
This week, he even tangled with labour unions, the bedrock of his party's support, when civil service unions staged a brief national strike.
A lifelong soldier with an autocratic style that earned him the sobriquet "little Napoleon," Mr. Barak is used to giving orders and having them carried out. But as Prime Minister, he plunged into Israel's volatile and impatient politics without mastering the art of compromise.
He regularly struck out on his own, without building a consensus or sometimes even consulting Cabinet colleagues, and he was unable to delegate authority.
At one point, Mr. Barak held almost a dozen Cabinet portfolios. Today, he still serves as his own defence, education and agriculture ministers.
At the start of the election, a humbled Mr. Barak delivered a remarkable public apology on national television for his performance.
"The mission of my life, after 35 years in the army, is to bring peace and security to Israel," he said. "Eighteen months ago, I approached this challenge with a military man's approach. I did not devote enough time to speaking to you, to explaining where we were heading and what exactly is happening at every stage.
"I learned a few important things: that you need to build a strong team and to consult more.
"If you give me the chance, I will do better," he promised. "With a wider team, I will listen more and will do everything in my power to gain your trust."
It may be too late for that now.
Mr. Sharon's campaign has tapped deep into the vein of public disillusionment and is running television ads that declare simply, "Barak has promised. Barak has disappointed. He must leave."
The bitter core of voters' disappointment rests with a failed peace process and the violence that has swept the region for the past four months.
The election is taking place against a backdrop of sporadic violence, gun battles, roadside shootings and bombings. And still, the basic issues of the Oslo peace process remain unresolved.
As Prime Minister, Mr. Barak gambled and lost at trying to negotiate a comprehensive peace settlement with the Palestinians. He placed the most complicated issues squarely on the negotiating table and offered concessions no Israeli leader had ever contemplated.
It may have showed courage. And it may make it easier for a future leader to discuss subjects that were once off limits. But he failed.
He enraged many voters by offering to divide Jerusalem. He toyed with modifying Israel's claim to the Temple Mount. He offered to relinquish control of the Jordan Valley and said he would give the Palestinians up to 95% of the West Bank.
But he never properly prepared the Israeli public for the painful concessions. And when the Palestinians rejected his proposals and launched their latest intifada, he was hung out to dry politically.
"The magician played with his handkerchief for months," wrote columnist Nahum Barnea in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "He made knots in it, he folded it, he stretched it, he shrank it ... and then nothing happened. No pigeon, no wand, no flower and no bud. To be exact, even the handkerchief disappeared."
What was left was a deep and growing sense of fear and uncertainty.
"The intifada has lowered Israelis' readiness to comply with Palestinian demands," said Dr. Tamar Hermann, director of the Tami Steinmetz Centre for Peace Research in Tel Aviv. "Israeli Jews now consider the Palestinians more violent and less trustworthy."
As a result, Mr. Barak's election campaign has been reduced to presenting him as a peacemaker, while branding Mr. Sharon as a risk-taking warmonger. He has told voters they have to choose between permitting his government to complete its efforts for peace, which he insists is closer than at any point in the past, or going back to a dangerous standoff and risking a war.
But Israel is already feeling the heat of the intifada and is not prepared to be disillusioned again.
Mr. Sharon's overwhelming lead in the public opinion polls has "nothing to do with the blunders of Barak or with the sterling qualities of the favourite in the race," Gideon Samet wrote recently in the newspaper Haaretz.
"The fundamental ingredient in every dramatic Israeli election win achieved by the right since 1973 is a deep-seated anxiety of rightist, leftist and middle-of-the-road voters.
"Hovering like the sword of Damocles over election campaigns for three decades has been a basic fear for Israel's very survival."
©2001 National Post