Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak returned to his alma mater, Stanford University, to deliver a ringing speech against terrorism Oct. 16. Before a full house of students and community members, he called for military action against Palestinian terrorists, Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq as part of an overarching battle against what he called "world terror."
"This is the opening chapter," said Barak, who served as Israel's prime minister from 1999 to 2001. "It may take half a generation, we may lose many lives…but we have to win the first world war of the 21st century."
Warmly received by a crowd of approximately 1,600, Barak was greeted with a standing ovation as he began and ended his talk. However, reaction to the speech itself, which combined political polemic with personal anecdotes about his experience fighting Israel's enemies, was mixed. Many had come to hear words of peace and were unprepared for words of war.
Barak, who came to Stanford to study economic-engineering systems in 1973, opened with a personal account of what it was like to go from being a graduate student one day and into the trenches of the Middle East the next. His studies were abruptly interrupted with a phone call at 4 a.m. one day. The Yom Kippur War had begun. He flew to Israel immediately to command troops in battle. Five years later he returned, completing his master's degree in 1979.
Barak's former life as Israel's most highly decorated soldier, as he is often cited, was clearly in evidence. A good portion of his talk was spent arguing in favor of U.S. military action against Iraq. Reiterating his Sept. 4 op-ed piece in The New York Times, "Taking Apart Iraq's Nuclear Threat," Barak said Hussein's "nuclear weapons program provides the urgent need for his removal." He said that once Iraq becomes a nuclear power, the decision to go to war becomes a "totally different ballgame."
He went on to describe how he would tactically approach the problem of deposing the Iraqi leader — using either "a surgical operation to hit the core of the regime" or a "major operation of 300,000 soldiers."
In a brief press conference preceding the talk, when he was asked whether war against Iraq would hinder progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Barak responded in the negative. "Some say that the right order is to proceed with Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, then turn to Iraq. I think they are wrong. The other side," he said, referring to the Palestinians, "has to have willingness."
Barak disavowed any "grand plan to motivate Yasser Arafat," but he said he believed that Hussein's defeat might have some effect on the Palestinian leader.
The former prime minister came out strongly in support of the current Israeli administration's military response to terrorism. "The Palestinians are attempting to impose suicide bombing as a new diplomatic tool," he said, "and Israel will never yield to this terror."
To make some headway in the situation, he said that Israel should pursue the following strategy: Stand firm and strike at terror; leave an open door for negotiations, with the full absence of violence as the only precondition; and build a fence between Israel, including its main settlements, and Palestinian-occupied territory in the West Bank.
While Barak's talk proceeded without incident, it was preceded with a peaceful protest by about 30 students. They stood behind a banner proclaiming "A Jewish Voice for Peace" and held signs such as "End the Occupation."
Even some of Barak's staunch supporters felt that he chose to wax eloquent on the wrong topics.
"I think it was a tactical error on his part," said Lois Kellerman, who has a weekly show called "The Jewish Alternative" on KZSU, Stanford's radio station. "I don't think he realized the extent of anti-Israel, anti-attack-Iraq sentiment here. He was doing Bush's work for him and focused on defending war on Iraq, instead of generating sympathy for Israel."
Others had hoped to hear more about resolving the Palestinian conflict from the man who offered the Palestinian people their own state at Camp David. "I was disappointed," said Jonathan Elkin, a Stanford freshman. "I was looking forward tremendously to hearing Barak. I hoped he'd have a solution to end the occupation. He was the most generous of anyone, and now he's talking about fighting them first before any compromise."
The evening concluded with a question-and-answer session, during which a couple of students zeroed in on the failed attempt at Camp David. "Fighting with weapons hasn't worked — why not fight with peace?" asked one woman.
"I tried peace," Barak responded, to thunderous applause. "Arafat refused to consider the offer even as a basis for negotiations."