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November 21, 2002

Speech by former Israeli prime minister spurs protest at Cal

Oy! and I had gone to this school. But Barak handled himself with dignity and restraint.
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) - Speaking in the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak took some heckling in stride as he talked about the prospects of peace in the Middle East.

About 200 people gathered at the University of California, Berkeley to protest Barak's speech Tuesday night, although a strong police presence kept them well away from the campus theater where the event took place.

Some critics did get into the auditorium, briefly interrupting Barak as he talked about a failed attempt in 2000 to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

``All you're giving us is excuses,'' shouted one man. Someone else shouted, ``Liar!''

As the protesters were ushered out by some of the scores of police officers monitoring the auditorium, Barak attempted to negotiate a truce with his critics.

``I am suggesting to you that instead of shouting now, ask questions later and I will answer all the questions,'' he said, winning a round of applause from most in the audience of about 1,500.

Middle East issues have dominated the protest scene on the Berkeley campus in recent months. Thirty-two students are presently facing disciplinary hearings over an April sit-in organized by Students for Justice in Palestine in support of a campaign demanding that UC divest from companies doing business with Israel.

Barak's appearance drew a number of demonstrators, including a teach-in led by Students for Justice in Palestine. Also on hand was an anti-war coalition and a smaller group who held up a banner reading ``A Jewish Voice for Peace.'' Steve Leeds, one of the people behind the banner, said he was there to register his contention that Barak did not make a genuine effort to negotiate with the Palestinians during his term in office.

``I think he's here as part of a PR campaign to refurbish his reputation and make a legacy for himself,'' he said.

Barak served as prime minister of Israel from 1999 to 2001.

In his speech, Barak said he made every effort to achieve peace, including accepting as a basis for negotiations conditions that he said were closer to Palestinian than Israeli demands. He said the problem was that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ``does not recognize Israel as a Jewish state.''

Two years ago, a speech at the Berkeley Community Theater by another Israeli leader, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was canceled because the protest presence was so strong.

Tuesday, Barak spoke at length about his military career fighting terrorism and said he does not see any quick solution to the world's present troubles.

``After 9/11 nothing about terrorism can ever be taken for granted or regarded as inconceivable,'' he said. ``It is clear to me that we are just in the opening phase of a tough struggle.''