Ehud Barak gets not-so-royal treatment in Berkeley

Ehud Barak has a three-point plan to bring peace to the Middle East.

Tuesday night at U.C. Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, the former prime minister laid out his vision:

1. To stand firm against terror.

2. To leave an open door for negotiations to resume with the end of attacks as the only precondition.

3. To begin disengaging from the Palestinian population by putting up a fence in the West Bank.

In reaction to this, a young man in an upper tier of the auditorium began yelling, "All you're giving us is excuses, not peace!"

Barak replied, "I suggest instead of shouting now, ask questions later and I will answer all your questions." Most of the audience applauded his response, but several students stood up and left the auditorium after this protest.

In the two hours that he spoke, Barak described Israel as a country eager for peace but without a "real partner who would make the painful but necessary decisions" on the Palestinian side.

While the speech he delivered was noticeably less hawkish than his talk a month ago at Stanford, there were many more protesters present before Barak's talk and several who interrupted him during it. However, a generally supportive audience of about 2,000 students, faculty and community members gave Barak a standing ovation at the end.

Reviewing his experience at Camp David in 2000, Barak said that he did his best to bring about peace. "When people say, 'occupation, occupation, occupation," I say, 'No, it's not about that. We have tried [to end it]. We were going to make the exchange — the end of the conflict for an independent Palestinian state that was continuous over 90 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of the Gaza Strip."

But Yasser Arafat rejected the offer, walked out the door and embarked on a terror campaign, said Barak, adding that he found the Palestinian leader unwilling to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

Berkeley's reputation as the center of the free-speech movement was underscored by protests organized by a half-dozen organizations, including the U.C. Berkeley Stop the War (on Iraq) Coalition and A Jewish Voice for Peace.

Based on past history, a mixed reception was expected: In November 2000, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a scheduled appearance at the Berkeley Community Theatre after protesters broke through barricades around the venue.

On Tuesday, about 200 people gathered near the hall, listening to open-mike speeches and carrying banners.

"Barak is touring the country under the guise of promoting peace, when he's really whipping up support for Bush's war," said Oakland elementary school teacher Kim Rabuck, who was standing at the Stop the War table nearby. "We are trying to bring people who want to stop the violence against Palestinian and Iraqi people together."

Amid a group yelling, "Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation's got to go," Ofer Sharone, a U.C. Berkeley graduate student, handed out fliers for the newly formed Berkeley Tikkun. "The campus is too polarized," Sharone said. "We want to end the occupation, but we also believe in Israel's right to exist."

The U.C. Police Department confirmed that student Mohammad O. Chaikhouni was arrested and charged with robbery and vandalism after allegedly grabbing and destroying a man's camera.

Other students distanced themselves from the protesters.

"I think the vast majority of people here are jumping on the bandwagon because the [Palestinian cause] is the popular cause to follow on campus," said Yakov Wiegmann, a recent U.C. Berkeley graduate and current staff member, who is Jewish.

In a question-and-answer session following his talk, Barak praised Bush's "moral and strategic clarity" in confronting Iraq's Saddam Hussein, saying that it could be a "catastrophe" if the "master of deception" obtained a nuclear weapon. During the Cold War, he added, even though Russia and China had the ability to destroy the world, there was a sense of stability.

"However deep the ideological dispute was, you knew there were mature and responsible personalities in the arena. You cannot assume that about Saddam Hussein."