Renowned as a brilliant military strategist, he rocketed through the ranks to become military chief of staff. In 1995, after 36 years in uniform, he made the quick transition to politics.
In less than four years, Barak was elected to parliament, held two top Cabinet posts, took charge of Israel's iconic Labor Party and was elected prime minister - beating Netanyahu in 1999 - on a pledge to reach a long-awaited peace with Israel's enemies.
But his stormy term in office lasted less than two years - the shortest of any elected Israeli premier - and he left under a swell of discontent for his unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, his failed negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria, and a violent Palestinian uprising that erupted under his watch.
Despite the dramatic collapse, Barak credited his wide-reaching offer at Camp David to withdraw from nearly all of the West Bank and Gaza with exposing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's essential rejection of peace - a view endorsed by U.S. President Bill Clinton. By offering far-reaching concessions that had never been considered before, such as dividing Jerusalem and evacuating large settlements blocs, Barak also prepared Israeli public opinion for the types of steps it would likely have to take for future peace.
In 2001, Barak was crushed by Ariel Sharon in a special election. On the night of his defeat, Barak retired in dramatic fashion. Over the next few years, he amassed a fortune on the lecture circuit and in the corporate world. He purchased a high-rise Tel Aviv apartment reportedly worth more than $10 million, part of a lavish lifestyle that angered his socialist supporters.
In 2007, he returned to politics, easily recapturing the leadership of the Labor Party and becoming defense minister in a bid to rehabilitate a military that performed below expectations in a war against Hezbollah guerrillas the previous year.
But he remained personally unpopular and his party, which had led Israel to independence and governed it for its first three decades, had lost its public appeal.
After leading Labor to an all-time low of 13 of 120 parliamentary seats in the 2009 election, Barak enraged his dovish base by joining Netanyahu's coalition government.
Israeli hardliners didn't like him any better, accusing him of undercutting the West Bank settlement movement by withholding construction approvals, clearing squatters from West Bank homes and encouraging Netanyahu to support a slowdown in settlement construction. That slowdown, initiated by the United States, has since expired.
Barak eventually broke away from Labor to form his new party, Independence, with a few junior allies. Without its founding father, the future of the party is now in question.
Avraham Diskin, a political analyst at Tel Aviv University, said given Barak's resume "it just isn't worth the effort and humiliation" of fighting for his political survival.
"If he wants to be the defense minister in the next government, it depends more on the relationship he and Bibi have than on whether he has a very tiny section in the Knesset (parliament) or not," he said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.
Former general Danny Yatom, a longtime Barak confidant, said he will be remembered most for his attempts at peace.
"Barak's legacy is steadfastly defending the security of the state of Israel alongside a deep understanding that the conflict between us and the Arabs cannot be solved by military means alone," he said. "He tried when he was prime minister, but he did not succeed."
Lauren E. Bohn contributed to this report.
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