To his admirers, Ehud Barak is a brilliant tactician, a warrior with nerves of steel and a first-rate amateur pianist.
But is Israel's prime minister-elect a deal-maker?
That's the question that has preoccupied Israel's political elite lately. Three weeks after his landslide victory in national elections, Barak has been stymied in his attempts to fashion the broad governing coalition that he promised.
So great was the magnitude of Barak's electoral triumph last month over incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, that Israelis assumed that he would choose a coalition partner from an embarrassment of riches. Everyone would clamor to join his government, went the thinking. Barak had only to pick.
Now, reality has dawned. And given Israel's bitter social divisions, Barak's soaring vision of a broad coalition, comprising left wing and right, religious and secular, settlers and peaceniks, is starting to look like a pipe dream.
"Barak is now in the position of the man who promised to jump from the heights of the circus tent, and when he got to the top he understood that jumping was out of the question," wrote Nahum Barnea, political columnist of the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "The question now is how he is going to get down."
Barak has until July 9 to form a viable government, and all is not lost. Talks between his camp, known as One Israel, and a dozen or so other parties elected to Israel's parliament are at a fever pitch.
Except for the defense minister's job, which Barak says he will take for himself, nearly all the other government portfolios remain up for grabs. But in the Byzantine game of mix and match that passes for coalition-building in Israel, choosing your friends also means defining your enemies. And Barak, a former commando leader and much-decorated army general, has not figured out a way to do both and still achieve a workable government.
Among his chief problems is the rift between the country's largest secular party and its biggest religious one.
The secular party, Meretz, is a leading proponent of peace with the Arabs, controls 10 of 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and is a natural ally for Barak. But it has refused to join any government that includes the main ultra-Orthodox religious party, Shas, which controls 17 Knesset seats.
Barak has been bombarded with thousands of e-mailed appeals from his supporters to exclude Shas, whose leader, Aryeh Deri, was recently sentenced to four years in prison for taking bribes.
Barak has said he will not deal with Shas as long as Deri remains its head. But his quandary is that the relatively dovish Shas is too valuable a partner to write off. Its substantial bloc of seats in parliament would help guarantee the success of any peace initiatives that Barak undertakes with the Palestinians or Syrians.
For Barak, the alternative to Shas seemed to be striking a deal with Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, which lost a third of its parliamentary seats in the election, many of them to Shas.
But many of Barak's allies and advisers fear that the hawkish Likud, if it were included in a coalition, would block any attempt at a peace deal. Moreover, Likud's acting leader, Ariel Sharon, is said to have asked that he retain the post of foreign minister as part of a coalition deal -- a price too steep for Barak, according to most analysts.
If neither Shas nor Likud is included in his government, Barak has said he could form a relatively narrow coalition with 66 of the 120 members of the Knesset. They would include the traditional Israeli left, a new centrist party, Russian-speaking immigrants, Jewish settlers on the West Bank and ultra-Orthodox rabbis of European descent.
But even that grouping is not a sure thing.
The settlers, as well as the Russians, are angry at Barak's draft policy platform, which would end tax breaks and other preferences for settlements. The ultra-Orthodox are furious that Barak supports eliminating the blanket exemption from army service they have enjoyed.
"In the end, Barak will manage to establish a government," wrote Barnea. "It is very doubtful whether there will be any joy in the process."
CAPTION: Among the problems for Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak in forming a government is the rift between the country's secular and religious parties.