Ehud Barak drew a standing ovation from the packed house at Heinz Hall last week following a talk in which the former Israeli prime minister — with charm, but without mincing words — covered the current geo-political landscape and its implications for the future.
The Oct. 26 lecture was part of the Pittsburgh Speaker Series presented by Robert Morris University.
Introduced by KDKA radio personality Larry Richert as “the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history,” Barak served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001 and defense minister from 2007 to 2013. He is known as an architect of peace, including as a negotiator of the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, and is credited with ending Israel’s 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. Although he was unable to successfully negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians, he has been lauded for his proposals in 2000 at Camp David.
Barak also was a key player in the June 1976 Entebbe Operation for the rescue of passengers on the hijacked Air France plane that was forced to land at the airport in Uganda. Last year, Foreign Policy magazine named him 13th among its 100 Global Thinkers.
Barak spoke to his Pittsburgh audience for more than an hour about the “challenges and opportunities” of living through “an unprecedented geopolitical earthquake,” covering everything from the Iran nuclear deal (“a bad deal, but a done deal,” he said), missed opportunities by the United States to quell the civil war in Syria and the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence in the region and radical Islamic terrorism.
“In five short years,” he observed, “the Arab Spring has turned into Islamic winter.”
The world order, Barak said, “has been deeply shaken,” with the entire planet turned into “one big gestalt.”
“Everything is dependent on everything else,” he explained, with no single world player able to take on any major challenge alone, including the United States, the only remaining superpower.
The international community must unite, he said, to make the defeat of terror a priority, which he conceded is a difficult challenge. He noted the success of ISIS in recruiting and training terrorists through YouTube videos and encryption, as well as its effectiveness in “inspiring lone wolves.” But militarily, he said, ISIS is “a ridiculous force,” which could be defeated if it were confronted by a serious force on the ground.
Barak criticized the Obama administration for drawing a chemical weapons red line in Syria and then not following through in defending it. Although not all of the regime’s chemical weapons could have been destroyed in one strike, he said, a third of those weapons could have been destroyed, and the strike would have provoked a clash with the Syrian air force, which in turn would have provided legitimacy to destroy that air force.
“It was an opportunity missed,” Barak explained. “The greatest risk is being unable to take one.”
Barak predicted the ultimate disintegration of Syria as a nation, as well as the disintegration of other countries in the Middle East, with smaller, tribal units arising from the rubble.
“That is probably not that bad,” he said, opining that “any turning back to secular military dictatorships will not happen.”
Turning to Israel, “an outpost of the Western way of life,” Barak compared the Jewish state to “a villa in the jungle.”
“The Middle East is not the Midwest,” Barak said. “We wish so strongly to have the Canadians as our neighbors.”
He praised Israel’s strength, “militarily, strategically and economically,” while still noting the risks of the Iran deal, which he explained left that nation “free to support terror and test long-range missiles.”
“I don’t expect them to break the deal in the next five years,” he said. “But in the next half decade, it’s not clear.”
The Iran deal, he said, “is like a second marriage: It’s the triumph of hope over experience.”
Peppering his talk with humorous anecdotes from his military and political career, Barak was well received by his audience, eliciting warm and appreciative laughter throughout the evening.
“There is something very special about this man,” said Mark Frank, who attended the lecture.
“There is something special about listening to him talk, not only to get the benefit of his experience — and he has done it all — but there is something generous or fatherly about him. He makes sense.”
Fewer than a dozen demonstrators from Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that calls for boycotts and sanctions against Israel, held signs in front of Heinz Hall prior to the event calling for an end to the “occupation” in Israel. The protest was part of “Global Sukkot against Demolitions,” an international initiative aiming to bring attention to Israeli “demolition of Palestinian homes,” according to Ella Mason, a leader of Jewish Voice for Peace Pittsburgh.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.