BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Nov. 9)
As Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat lay dying in a Paris hospital, the Israeli leader who last engaged him in negotiations insisted Arafat “was and remained a terrorist.” Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, addressing about 700 people at a Birmingham Jewish Federation event on Sunday, said Arafat was “a tragic character that brought tragedy to his own people, and to us, obviously.”
Barak, who lost his re-election bid in a landslide seven months after the Camp David summit ended in failure, said he has followed Arafat for 30 years, “the first 20 through the sights and the last 10 years around the negotiating table.”
Barak said Arafat was a failed leader who, unlike Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein — both of whom signed peace deals with Israel and carried out their commitments — could not bring himself to take the final steps toward peace.
Arafat rejected Barak’s unprecedented peace overture in talks at the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland. Israeli analysts then warned that the Palestinians seemed to be making preparations for war, and indeed the intifada began several months later.
In 2000, “We found at Camp David that Arafat does not recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” and that the issue was not the 1967 borders but the 1947 ones — that is to say, Israel’s very existence.
The Palestinians might miss Arafat, Barak said, “but I hope that for them and for us that whoever will replace him will embark on a more courageous and determined leadership.”
That will be difficult, he noted, because Arafat “poisoned the souls of a whole young Palestinian generation” that was brought up glorifying suicide bombers.
If pragmatic leaders follow Arafat, there will be “a short window of opportunity,” Barak said, but if extremists take over, the region will see “a new, long round of violence.”
Barak applauded Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s planned pullback from the Gaza Strip, but said that the plan — which calls for Israeli withdrawal also from part of the West Bank — doesn’t go far enough.
“We have to set a border in which there will be a solid Jewish majority for generations to come,” Barak said.
The commando-turned-politician also addressed the broader war on terrorism, calling the Iranian nuclear threat “very worrying.”
The Iranians have “become experts on manipulating the good will of the Europeans” through “their own version of delay and deceit,” Barak said.
It is critical, he added, to deal with the threat an Iranian nuclear capability would pose even to Western Europe and most of Asia.
Iran on Tuesday announced plans to mass-produce the Shihab-3 missile, which is capable of reaching Israel and U.S. targets in the Persian Gulf.
Speaking about the U.S. presidential election, Barak noted that — while President Bush was a good friend to Israel in his first term — his opponent, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), also would have been friendly to Israel.
The election, Barak said, demonstrated that Americans realize the war on terrorism “is a marathon and not a sprint” and that it could take “half a generation.”
“After three years of struggle, we are still in the opening chapter of this ordeal,” he said. It will require “moral and strategic clarity.”
Bush’s vision has not been appreciated in Europe, but Barak said it “was respected in the Middle East, especially among his rivals.”
Barak said he remains optimistic and foresees “a strong and confident Israel in peace with its neighbors containing a solid majority of the Jewish people, on the cutting edge of world societies in technology and science.”
He also urged support of Jewish education throughout the world, which “will secure the continuation of Judaism in the next generations.”