The Magazine

Israel After Sharon . . .

And Palestine after Fatah.

Feb 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 20 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The just concluded Sixth Annual Herzliya Conference on National Security illustrated the center's growing power. Israeli academics, business people, journalists, politicians, and national security figures, along with distinguished visitors from abroad, gathered this week several miles north of Tel Aviv for three 14-hour-days of panels and speeches on topics ranging from the Iranian nuclear threat to the rule of law and the inclusion of Arab citizens of Israel in the country's social and political life. The conference's nonstop debate itself is testimony to the vibrancy of democracy in Israel. But it was the featured dinner speeches of Likud candidate for prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Labor candidate Amir Peretz, and Kadima candidate and Acting Prime Minister Olmert that were most revealing.

Neither Netanyahu on Sunday night nor Peretz on Monday night broke new ground or defied expectations, though both showed an appreciation of the need to give the center its due. The former Likud prime minister--slick, smart, and well-spoken--indicated that he is prepared to remove illegal settlements in the West Bank and to make territorial concessions. Former union leader Peretz seemed small, nervous, and not yet ready for prime time leadership. While he expressed optimism about finding a Palestinian negotiating partner, he also declared his readiness, if all else fails, to disengage unilaterally.

Olmert's Tuesday night speech was highly anticipated. A career politician in a country where it is thought particularly unseemly to make a career out of politics, the 60-year-old Olmert was first elected to the Knesset in 1973 and served as mayor of Jerusalem for 10 years (1993-2003). Olmert, like Sharon, was for most of his public life an outspoken proponent of West Bank settlements. But Olmert also became closely identified with the national security policies Sharon adopted as prime minister. Indeed, Olmert was the first conservative and first member of Sharon's cabinet to come out with the idea of disengagement. Subsequently, Olmert collaborated with Sharon on the historic December 2003 Herzliya address in which Sharon announced the disengagement plan. But could the sharp-tongued, quick-tempered career politician fill the shoes of the daring former general who, as prime minister, as on the battlefield throughout his two-and-a-half-decades-long military career, boldly and repeatedly seized the initiative?

In fact, Olmert delivered his speech with conviction and prime-ministerial gravity. And he said what he needed to say. He paid tribute to Sharon and affirmed his intention to continue on "the path of Sharon." He declared that Israel must maintain a Jewish majority by relinquishing control over large parts of the West Bank and establishing clear boundaries, while keeping Jerusalem united under Israeli sovereignty, holding onto the largest Jewish settlement blocs, and establishing security zones. He committed himself to "full implementation" of the U.S.-sponsored Road Map, which calls for the Palestinians to abandon terror in exchange for which Israel will enter into negotiations for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. And while touting the achievements of economic reform--a 5.2 percent growth rate in 2005 (higher than the United States or Europe), reduced unemployment, record levels of foreign investment--Olmert stressed the urgency of lifting up the poor. He would do this not in the old way, through aggressive redistribution, but by expanding opportunity, starting with a restructuring of the educational system.

Moreover, Olmert's Herzliya address contained three remarkable passages that went well beyond what he needed to say. The first affirmed the Jewish right to the historic land of Israel, while emphasizing the moral and political necessity of imposing painful restrictions on the exercise of that right:

The existence of a Jewish majority in the State of Israel cannot be maintained with the continued control over the Palestinian population in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip. We firmly stand by the historic right of the people of Israel to the entire Land of Israel. Every hill in Samaria and every valley in Judea is part of our historic homeland. We do not forget this, not even for one moment. However, the choice between the desire to allow every Jew to live anywhere in the Land of Israel [and] the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish country--obligates relinquishing parts of the Land of Israel. This is not a relinquishing of the Zionist idea, rather the essential realization of the Zionist goal--ensuring the existence of a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel.

The second represented the most forceful statement to date by an Israeli head of government that illegal settlements must cease and those in existence must be removed: