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    Israeli leader speaks on Iraq

    In a visit to the bay area, ex-Prime Minister Ehud Barak comments on the Columbia disaster and action against Iraq.

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    By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 4, 2003


    PALM HARBOR -- Even for a nation used to adversity, these are dark days in Israel.

    The Palestinian uprising is in its 28th month, with no end in in sight.

    War with Iraq looms, threatening more violence and terrorism.

    And TV is filled with somber tributes to Israel's first astronaut, killed aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

    The nation's mood is "a combination of anger, frustration, gloom," former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Monday. "But there is still a sense of resilience. ... When we are stricken you find us more clear and united."

    Barak said he was optimistic, predicting that Saddam Hussein's removal would present "opportunities far exceeding the risks." And if Yasser Arafat ever yields power, there are "highly capable" Palestinians ready to take his place.

    A former general and war hero, Barak has had a storied career that included dressing up as a buxom woman to slip into a Beirut apartment and kill three Palestinians responsible for the 1972 Olympic massacre. But he also tried for peace with the Palestinians and once remarked that had he been born Palestinian, he probably would have joined a terrorist group, too.

    Barak's visit to the Tampa Bay area included a news conference, conducted under tight security, a meeting with members of the St. Petersburg Times editorial board and a speech that drew at least 800 to Temple Ahavat Shalom. Dozens of guests paid $1,000 a plate to dine with Barak, who has become a popular speaker since he was defeated by Ariel Sharon in 2001.

    Barak arrived in Florida on Saturday, just an hour before Columbia broke up over Texas. The death of astronaut Ilan Ramon was a personal blow to Barak, who gave Ramon his colonel's wings and informed him in 1997 that NASA had picked him for a shuttle mission.

    "There were several minutes where maybe all of them knew what was going to happen," Barak said. "It sends shivers to the spine -- I cannot stop thinking about it."

    While discounting terrorism, Barak said it seemed "an almost impossible coincidence" that the shuttle would disintegrate the first time an Israeli was aboard. "The whole country is focused to an unimaginable extent on this," he said.

    Barak praised Ramon as smart and capable, a top pilot who was among those who destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. The bombing was "condemned by the whole world" at the time, Barak noted, but later was seen as a "far-sighted operation" that set back Hussein's nuclear program by 15 years.

    Now, with the United States determined to disarm and remove Hussein, Barak said war is justified and necessary.

    "The real risk lies in inaction and being paralyzed," he said. "The history of the last century tells us of the perils of paralysis in the face of a rogue despot."

    He said most nations opposing military action would support the United States as it becomes clear that war is inevitable. "Your leadership team under President Bush is an A team," he said. "For this kind of mission, they are the best possible team to lead the free world during that kind of endeavor."

    Once Hussein is gone, Barak said, "we will see a different political landscape in the Arab world." That could include a democratic movement to push Arafat into a symbolic role and allow for a more moderate Palestinian leadership.

    As prime minister, Barak supported a peace plan that would have dismantled many Israeli settlements and given Palestinians a separate state including the Gaza Strip, most of the West Bank and parts of East Jerusalem. Arafat called the plan inadequate, and Barak was defeated by Sharon, who advocated a harder line with the Palestinians.

    Even though suicide bombings have continued, Israeli voters retained Sharon's Likud Party in power last week by an overwhelming margin. But Barak said the election should not be seen as evidence that Israelis are becoming more hawkish and right-wing.

    If and when more moderate Palestinians take over, Barak said, both sides will return to his original peace proposal -- or one so similar "you'd have to use a magnifying glass to find the difference."

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