Did he blunder and give comfort to Israel's enemies or was he candidly expressing what he and many Israelis in their hearts believe?
Either way, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak's remark last week that if he had been born a Palestinian, he might have joined one of the groups fighting Israel has erupted into a major political flap for the former army chief who wants Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's job.
Right-wing politicians are exploiting the comment, saying Barak has provided some legitimacy for groups like Hamas that have wreaked havoc in Israel. Political analysts predict it may come back to haunt Barak when he gets his chance to challenge Netanyahu at the polls.
But some Israelis have come forth to say that Barak was only stating an obvious truth, that if Israelis were in the Palestinians' shoes, their actions might be similar. "We all think the same, all did the same at the time," said Yael, who called in to an Israel Radio talk show Tuesday night and identified herself as a former member of the Haganah, a Zionist military group at the time of Israel's fight for statehood.
Barak's statements came in an Israeli television interview Friday night on a program called "Personal Encounter."
"If I was [a Palestinian] at the right age, at some stage I would have entered one of the terror organizations and have fought from there, and later certainly have tried to influence from within the political system," said Barak, replying to a question from interviewer Gideon Levy.
Barak immediately offered clarification. "You're in essence asking if there is legitimacy for a Palestinian to fight. From our standpoint, their methods are very abominable, villainous, inhumane and inappropriate," he said, including the killing of innocent women and children.
Despite that attempt at damage control, the comments have caused glee in Netanyahu's Likud Party and embarrassed Labor stalwarts.
The left's chagrin grew even more acute Tuesday when a Palestinian--who is on trial before a military court for alleged involvement in the 1997 suicide bombing of the outdoor Cafe Apropos in Tel Aviv and a rash of other attacks that killed 11 people--sought to justify himself by pointing specifically to what Barak had said. "We too are . . . soldiers," declared Hamas member Aiman Kapisha, who spoke Hebrew to ensure that his comments would be understood by Israelis. "We want to liberate the land of Palestine. . . . It is our right."
Barak, 56, who is neither as telegenic nor as facile in speaking as rival Netanyahu, was a highly decorated officer who rose to chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces before he resigned to become a politician. A protege of Yitzhak Rabin--the tough late prime minister--Barak is not usually thought of as a dove; he once commanded the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, and Netanyahu served under him.
The furor caused by his remarks has thrown him on the defensive, with supporters taking to the airwaves to remind the public of his past, including a daring commando operation in which he dressed as a woman to carry out an assassination in Beirut.
Labor politicians, meanwhile, have tried to turn the fire back onto Likud, accusing the party of distorting Barak's remarks to score political points and sow divisions among Israelis. "How low can the Likud sink?" asked Knesset member Dalia Itzik. "What is the Likud actually trying to say here, that Ehud is encouraging terrorism? Is this serious? . . . This is first-rate nonsense."
As for Likud, its politicians said Barak's statements proved he is unfit to lead an Israeli political party, much less to ever govern the country. "When people who see Ehud Barak not only as a leader but as a guide and hero of Israel hear this, they can make the mistake of thinking that he doubts the justice of our cause," Reuven Rivlin, a Likud lawmaker, told Israel Army Radio.
Likud's youth wing was preparing a publicity campaign this week under the slogan "Barak Joins the Fatah," a reference to the main faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. But senior party members decided that would take the matter too far.
At the opposite political pole, Abdul Wahab Darawshe, a left-wing Arab lawmaker, said Barak was to be congratulated for "his understanding and public courage."
Barak denied to the Haaretz newspaper that his statement was a gaffe, arguing: "What else could I say? That if I were a young Palestinian immersed from birth in the Palestinian ethos, I'd become a third-grade teacher?" He also said he heard similar comments from the late Moshe Dayan and even from Yitzhak Shamir, Likud prime minister from 1986 to 1992.
While some analysts believe the controversy will be just a blip on Israel's political radar, others think Barak might have damaged himself. "His spin doctors will be suffering from this problem for a long time to come," predicted Gerald Steinberg, a political studies professor at the BESA Center at Bar Ilan University. "It makes him more vulnerable to internal challenge from within the Labor Party, and more vulnerable to defeat by Netanyahu."
Steinberg said Barak has crossed a fundamental divide in Israeli politics by seeming to justify terrorism. If Barak had answered the hypothetical question by saying he would fight for a Palestinian state, that might have been acceptable, but "there is a difference between taking up arms and being a terrorist."
Barak--who took over Labor leadership from former Prime Minister Shimon Peres in June--has led Netanyahu in polls by 5 to 7 percentage points in recent months. But that is illusory, experts say, because many undecided voters, if recent history holds true, will gravitate toward Likud at the last minute.
"If elections were really held today, I would put my money on Netanyahu," said Rafi Smith of the Smith Research Institute, one of Israel's top polling organizations, in a telephone interview. That assessment is based on his belief that the Israeli electorate is conservative and not due to any damage Barak might have done himself with his recent remark.
Joseph Alpher, the American Jewish Committee representative in Jerusalem, said the comments would be thrown back at Barak at election time, but he doubted the damage would be serious. "I dare say it's [an opinion] that many people on the left and some on the right would say in their heart of hearts they might agree with."
But Batl Nachmies, 60, a right-wing activist protesting Barak's comments Tuesday in a small demonstration outside Labor's Tel Aviv headquarters, observed: "For someone who wants to be a leader, even if he thinks it's true, he shouldn't have said it." When pressed, Nachmies admitted that, "Well, if I was a Palestinian, I would fight for a state but not at the expense of someone else's state."