Ehud Barak was born in 1942 in Mishmar Hasharon, a kibbutz north of Tel Aviv. Upon graduating from high school in 1959, he joined the Israel Defense Forces, where he served in the General Staff's elite reconnaissance unit, Sayeret Matkal. He participated in the 1967 and 1973 wars, as well as in some of his unit's most daring raids, among them the rescue operation on board the hijacked Sabena airplane in 1972 in which Barak was dressed as a technician to deceive the terrorists. In 1973, Barak's unit assassinated top PLO officials in Lebanon in Operation Spring of Youth. During that operation, Barak and several other commandos were disguised as women.
Barak would go on to rise in the military chain of command until his appointment as IDF chief of the general staff in 1991. Barak was the most decorated Israeli soldier at the time, having been awarded more than four military honors.
In 1995, Barak was appointed minister of interior affairs by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Following Rabin's assassination in November of that year, Barak was then appointed foreign minister in Shimon Peres' government. Two years later, he won the Labor party's chairmanship. In 1999, as head of a new political bloc, One Israel, he unseated incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in what was an electoral landslide.
A year later, true to his campaign pledge, he unilaterally withdrew IDF forces from southern Lebanon, despite pressure from the IDF and some in the political world who warned that the move would hurt Israel's standing and deterrence. Israel had established a security zone south of its northern neighbor in the 1980s to help to defend its border communities, but in the wake of mounting casualties, the Israeli public gradually turned sour on Israel's presence there.
Barak was voted out of office in 2001, shortly after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising. The Israeli electorate blamed him for making far-reaching concessions in his negotiations with PLO leader Yasser Arafat over the future of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip in an effort that ultimately failed to produce peace. They overwhelmingly supported his Likud challenger, Ariel Sharon.
After a six-year hiatus, Barak returned as defense minister and deputy prime minister in 2007, after reassuming leadership of the Labor party. In the 2009 elections, Labor won only 13 seats (down from 19), but he led the party into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, keeping the title of defense minister. In 2011, in the face of increasing dissent from within his party ranks, he created a new Knesset faction, Independence. During his tenure at the Defense Ministry, he presided over the most recent Israeli military offensives in the Gaza Strip — Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. His performance in both campaigns shored up his popularity as defense minister, but he has never fully recovered from his crushing defeat in 2001.