Entering the office of Ehud Barak, the new prime minister of Israel, I slide forward a business card, Hebrew side up. He looks, flips to the English side, looks again.

It's quiz time.

He pronounces the name aloud, then asks if I know what it means.

I stammer an answer, and am, thank God, correct: I know what my name means, after all ("high citizen" in German). The prime minister of Israel nods approvingly and smiles.

Barak, the Hebraized name young Ehud Brog adopted in the army, also means something: It's Hebrew for "lightning."

But not just lightning, says Barak, warming to his subject. Also gleaming, shining, sparkling, bright. Hebrew has just a fraction of the vocabulary English does, so each word is rich with multiple meanings. "It's a very effective language for poetry, since it can give you the freedom of your imagination," he says.

The lesson now over, the interview can begin.

This is vintage Barak. An American who has studied him closely says that when it comes to conversations with those outside his inner circle, Barak operates in two modes: Either he decides you can educate him, in which case he listens intently, or else he decides you are worth educating, in which case he talks intently.

No one is exempt, apparently. When Barak, then the opposition leader, met with President Clinton in Washington during the Iraqi crisis early last year, the president asked him what he thought about the situation.

According to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Barak, a former military chief of staff and intelligence chief well practiced at briefing prime ministers, responded with a 45-minute analysis of the balance of power in the Middle East. He seemed prepared to go on for some time, but White House aides signaled that the meeting was over.

"He didn't let me get a word in," said a somewhat startled Clinton, the newspaper reported. "But the man knows what he's talking about."

Yitzhak Rabin thought so, too. The late Israeli prime minister was the military chief of staff in the late 1960s when he came across Barak, a young officer in the Israeli army's top commando unit. Already Barak was fabled as a nighttime navigator on long-distance marches, a nimble-fingered lock-picker, a creative tactician and a soldier so self-confident and steely-nerved that on operations behind enemy lines he would turn off his radio rather than have to obey orders from his commanding officer to withdraw.

Impressed, Rabin delivered a judgment that would long be remembered: "If this boy does not become chief of staff," he said, "there is something wrong with the system."

The boy did become chief of staff. And along the way he also became the most decorated soldier in the history of the Israeli army, a commando leader whose exploits, including assassinations and hostage-rescue operations, helped nurture the myth of invincibility that for years enveloped the Israeli Defense Forces.

But today, four years after he traded his medal-bedecked uniform for a politician's gray suit, the question for many Israelis is whether Barak will be as adept at making peace with the Arabs as he was at killing them. What does his name mean now?

Mind Over Machismo

James Carville, a consultant on Barak's campaign for prime minister, had a thing about Barak's hands. He'd look at them and think: "I wonder how many guys--you know, terrorists--he's come up behind."

To his family and friends, though, what makes Barak tick is not his machismo but his mind. Cerebral, creative, cautious and curious, Barak was a thinking man's general whose idea of relaxation was to play Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata on the piano. As a politician, he has a habit in interviews of quoting Talmudic scholars and giving unusually multidimensional answers.

"You cannot squeeze a one-liner out of Ehud with a gun," says one of his close friends from their army days.

"Ehud is not Rambo," says his brother, Avinoam Brog, a clinical psychologist. "Rambo is about muscles and American values of sacrificing yourself. . . . Ehud is a sophisticated guy. He's learned and matured. He enjoys the brain game. When I wanted to play basketball when we were kids, he wanted to play brain games. When you become a general you understand this: It's not about macho, it's about security and the future of the Jewish people."

Carville, after his initial fixation with Barak's military bona fides, revised his take on him.

"To tell you the truth, I think his hobby is thinking," he says. "He really thinks things through and his thought process is very detailed and nuanced. One time he was doing a TV spot, and he started telling the crew how they could improve the engineering of the TelePrompTer. He constantly challenges you."

All fine and good. But can the man make peace with the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Lebanese?

There are plenty of doubters, and not only because the issues are spectacularly tangled: borders, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of refugees and who gets access to water.

Some worry that Barak's plans for permanent peace will fall victim to the exaggerated expectations he has helped create, to the intractable realities of Arab-Jewish enmity, to Israel's domestic political contradictions or to his own highly developed sense of security.

"One wonders if the combination of the Israeli political system and Barak's own personality isn't likely to generate too slow and cautious and risk-averse decision-making," says Yaron Ezrahi, a prominent political philosopher.

Amos Elon, a writer and critic, is skeptical of the popular take on Barak after his landslide victory over Binyamin Netanyahu in the May elections. "He's Einstein, he's Mozart, he's Patton," he says with a wry smile. To Elon, there is ample cause to doubt whether Barak, a retired military man whose closest aides include other retired military men, is the right leader to deliver Israel to peace.

A Child Apart

If anyone in Israel can be said to be a product of the system, it is Barak. But in his case the system has a distinctly elitist cast: Sabra. Kibbutz. Elite army unit. Labor Party. These are the signposts along the career route of an Israeli child of privilege.

His parents came to what was then Palestine in the 1930s, his father from Lithuania, his mother from Poland, both emigres from a continent being rapidly engulfed by antisemitism and strife. Both were active in the Zionist youth movement, and both were determined to be pioneers in the new Jewish homeland. Brimming with socialist idealism and notions of sacrifice and egalitarianism, they were among the founding residents of a collective farm near the Mediterranean coast, Mishmar Hasharon.

Years later, the early kibbutzniks of European descent would become an elite who had a distinct edge over later arrivals from the Middle East and North Africa. But in the 1930s, Mishmar Hasharon wasn't much more than a malarial swamp, and everyone was poor in approximately the same degree. There was no running water, no indoor plumbing, little in the way of modern conveniences. Barak's father, Israel Brog, had studied social sciences in the first graduating class from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But the needs of the day were more prosaic: The kibbutz had to have an electric system, so he became the electrician.

Brog met his wife, Esther, on the kibbutz; he was her Hebrew teacher. They were married in 1940 and two years later had the first of four boys, Ehud. In a land of immigrants, he would be marked as what Israelis call a "sabra"--someone born in Israel.

He was pint-size and chubby-cheeked, and he stunned his mother by liking spinach. ("No child likes spinach," she said. "Maybe it was because he was small and they said it'd make you strong like Popeye.")

In the socialist-inspired practice of the day, Barak as a child lived not with his parents but in the kibbutz children's home with a dozen other kids his age. He'd spend four hours each afternoon with his parents, then return to the children's house to sleep.

In school he hardly needed to study, rarely took notes and sometimes spent class time reading his own books, often biographies. But when called on by the teacher, Barak would answer fluently, "reading" from his empty notebook. While the other kids would play basketball, Ehud would play the kibbutz's only piano (he started taking lessons at age 10). While the other kids were goofing off, Barak taught himself to pick any lock in sight in seconds. His classmates knew he was different--and smarter--but they liked him.

"Ehud was like from the United Nations," says Edna Leviatan, Barak's peer in the children's house. "Whenever there was a fight, we'd go over to him and say, 'Ehud, who's right?' And Ehud would never choose sides. He'd say, 'You're right, but you're also right.' He wasn't the leader, because he was small, but he was the brains behind the group."

Bored with schoolwork, Barak dropped out as a senior. (He received his high school diploma later, plus a college degree in math and physics and a master's from Stanford University in economic engineering systems.) After a few months driving a tractor in Israel's Negev Desert, he joined the army. It was 1959. He would remain in uniform until 1995.

Iron and Steel

He was 17 years old when he enlisted, but he looked much younger. Narrow-chested and baby-faced, he hadn't even started shaving. But he was a whiz with a map and a master of detailed planning, helped by a memory that colleagues described as nearly photographic. And within months he'd been recommended to the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, an elite group of commandos modeled after the British SAS and known in the army simply as "the unit."

The unit's specialties included whatever needed to be done behind enemy lines, and the missions tended to be quick, dangerous, meticulous and highly classified. The unit's soldiers often trained in the desert, and Barak learned a passable street Arabic in sessions with Bedouin tribesmen in the Negev. He learned to pray and sing in Arabic, although, he acknowledges, his accent was too thick to disguise. His rise was swift, and in 1970, at the age of 28, he was named the unit's commander.

Under Barak's command, the unit's machismo and derring-do became legend. In one famous episode in 1973, Barak donned a brunet wig and women's pants, landed on the beach of Beirut with a small squad of men, some of them similarly attired, and made his way to an apartment building near the center of town. There, following a game plan Barak devised, his group found and liquidated its target: three members of the Black September arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization believed responsible for the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes in a raid on the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Barak, acting as lookout outside the building, opened fire on Lebanese soldiers who drove up unexpectedly as the hit was underway. The Israelis all made it back to their boats on the beach, and home, without casualties. "He thinks in the biggest magnitude anyone can think, he thinks macro, but he devours details, too," says one of his admiring soldiers from the unit.

When Barak was a more senior officer in later years, the man says, he sweated out countless hours in headquarters waiting for soldiers he'd sent on undercover raids behind enemy lines to make it home safely. "You need balls of iron for that, and a heart of steel," he says.

When Israel was attacked by its Arab neighbors in 1973, Barak rushed back from Stanford, where he was studying for his master's degree, to take charge of a tank unit fighting the Egyptians. Amid the fighting, he ran into a boyhood friend from the kibbutz, Pinhas Leviatan, Edna's husband.

"We had crossed the Suez under heavy artillery fire, and all of a sudden I see a tank on my left and Ehud is riding on top of it," says Leviatan. "He called me over and I got on top of the tank and we embraced. And Ehud said to me, 'Since Bar Kokhba [the leader of a 2nd-century Jewish revolt against the Romans], the nation of Israel has never been in such a dangerous risk for its survival.' He said things you only hear from Hollywood."

For years Barak seemed immune to failure in the army, and he capitalized on a reputation for unconventional thinking and unquestioned physical courage. In Israel, he commanded the successful 1972 raid on a hijacked Sabena Airlines jet at Ben-Gurion airport, dressing his soldiers in white mechanics' overalls. Although he was not on the scene for the storied 1976 Israeli commando raid at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda, in which more than 100 Jewish hostages were rescued, he helped run the operation from Nairobi. In 1988, as deputy chief of staff, he commanded the assassination of Yasser Arafat's top aide, Khalil Wazir, in Tunis.

To his rivals in the army, Barak was a cunning careerist who seemed to climb the ranks as if magically anointed: chief of the central command, chief of planning and intelligence and, finally, chief of staff. They resented his political acumen and the connections he cultivated assiduously.

But none could challenge the five decorations he accumulated along the way--a rarity in the Israeli army, which is sparing with its honors, and the rough equivalent of five Congressional Medals of Honor. And none managed to impugn the reputation Barak had made early as commander of "the unit."

"To me, they were supermen," says Yossi Peled, a former top general who fought Barak for the job of chief of staff, and lost.

As chief of staff he lost some of the gleam that had attached to his reputation. He promised administrative reforms that failed to materialize and helped plan two major attacks on South Lebanon that caused hundreds of casualties, mostly civilian, but failed to improve Israel's security situation.

In another incident, Barak was accused of looking on impassively after a training accident left five Israeli soldiers dead and another six wounded. The men, who were from Barak's old commando unit, were said to have been rehearsing the assassination of Saddam Hussein. Barak's conduct was investigated and absolved by a special commission, but the event helped cement a reputation for coldblooded aloofness that stuck. "Basically, he has a closed personality," says one of Barak's closest confidants. "He keeps a lot of assets for himself. His vision is that as a politician, like as a general, you don't expose yourself in everything."

'Benign Killer Whale'

Barak retired from the army at the start of 1995. He spent a few months considering his options, but he didn't have to consider for long.

Rabin, once his commander and for years his mentor, invited Barak into his Labor Party government as interior minister. When Rabin was assassinated in November of that year by an opponent of the Oslo peace accords, his successor, Shimon Peres, took over. Peres, who had no army background, needed Barak at his right hand to reassure Israelis that someone was minding the security shop. Barely a year out of the army, Barak was named foreign minister.

The government didn't last. Peres was defeated by Netanyahu, and Barak eventually became head of the Labor Party. Suddenly cast into the center of Israeli politics, he seemed tentative, unsure of himself for the first time.

He told an interviewer that had he been born a Palestinian, he probably would have joined a terrorist group. That left his poll rating sagging and his party mortified. He apologized on behalf of his party to Israeli immigrants from African and Middle Eastern countries for the shoddy treatment they'd received a generation earlier. On television he could seem thin-skinned, easily provoked, autocratic. A popular satiric television show in which prominent politicians are played by puppets lampooned him by dressing him up as another short general--Napoleon.

But after two rocky years in opposition, all was forgiven in the May election. It was, all agreed, a brilliant campaign, and characteristic of Barak: carefully conceived, tactically flawless.

But the question remains: What is the proper name for Barak now? Hawk or dove?

As interior minister he abstained on one of the Oslo peace agreements Rabin reached with the Palestinians. And he sometimes spoke of "physical separation" between Israelis and Palestinians.

As candidate for prime minister, he predicted painful decisions and territorial compromises looming ahead on the path to peace. But he was more specific about what he would not do, the four "red lines" he would not cross. There would be no mass evacuation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, he said. No return to the borders in effect before Israel's triumphant war with the Arab states in 1967. No division of Jerusalem, which he considers Israel's exclusive and permanent capital. And no Arab army west of the Jordan River.

To Barak, the idea of hawks and doves misses the point. "All my life I have tried to keep myself well rooted to the ground," he says. "I am going to renew the peace efforts. I have no illusions about the nature of this neighborhood. Israel is strong and should be a self-confident state. . . . I perceive Israel as a kind of benign killer whale that doesn't bite if it's not extremely necessary."

CAPTION: Ehud Barak, above right, conferring with the late Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. Left, a Barak campaign poster peers out from behind what's left of one touting his opponent in last spring's election, Binyamin

CAPTION: Labor Party supporters celebrate Barak's election in May.