Reporter's notebook

Domestic issues dominating elections, candidates admit… at foreign-policy debate

Even Naftali Bennett will eventually moderate his stance — in two weeks, when he’s prime minister, Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi jokes

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

For the foreign press in Israel, Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett is currently the one hot topic. Given that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will most likely be reelected on January 22, Bennett’s meteoric rise from unknown hi-tech millionaire to likely senior minister is the best story of this election season.

This phenomenon was also apparent at an English-language foreign policy debate in Jerusalem Tuesday, which mostly catered to international diplomats and journalists.

Despite the dismal weather, the event was surprisingly well attended. Yet while heavy rains and winds raged outside, there was no real storm inside the building, with the different party representatives on hand agreeing on the most issues — such as the need to stem the Iranian nuclear threat and reconcile with Turkey, and the importance of US-Israeli ties — and politely agreeing to disagree on how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

It so happens that Bennett has the most controversial opinion regarding this topic — he opposes a Palestinian state and instead advocates the annexation of much of the West Bank — and so all eyes were on him during most of the event.

‘In a sense, it’s a tragedy. The Palestinians want a full-blown state. I believe we cannot give a full-blown state’

The son of Californian immigrants, Bennett was the panel’s only native English speaker. Isaac Herzog of the Labor party, Tzachi Hanegbi of Likud-Yisrael Beytenu, and Yaakov Perry of Yesh Atid were also on the stage. (Amram Mitzna was supposed to represent Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, but was stuck in Haifa due to the storm.)

It wasn’t just the language advantage, but also his provocative-straightforward charm, that made Bennett’s comments the more compelling part of an otherwise rather lackluster debate, in which all participants dully repeated their party’s key talking points about issues that for the most part do not feature prominently in the current campaign. (As a new Times of Israel poll shows, 60 percent of likely voters consider socioeconomic issues the next government’s greatest challenge.)

“A Jewish spring is sweeping Israel these days,” Bennett said, seeking to answer the question of how a small sectorial party is suddenly set to become the second or third largest force in the next Knesset. “What you’re seeing with the Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) is a dormant desire to restore Jewish values to Israel being uncovered, exploding. And that’s the secret of what’s going on.”

All eyes on him: Naftali Bennett at a foreign policy debate co-organized by The Israel Project and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, January 08, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
All eyes on him: Naftali Bennett at a foreign policy debate co-organized by The Israel Project and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, January 08, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Bennett acknowledged that he was the only panelist who openly opposes a two-state solution, saying a Palestinian state would force a “Hobbesian lifestyle” on Israelis and Palestinians, “eternal strife, a miserable life for the next 200 years.”

“There is no perfect solution for this Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but there’s imperfect ways to live together on the ground,” he said, peddling his so-called Stability Plan, which calls for Israel annexing Area C, 60% of the West Bank territory that is home to an estimated 4% of the Palestinian populace.

“I urge the international community, Let’s take a new look at an old problem,” he said. “When you bash your head time and time again without a solution, it’s time to take a fresh look.”

What about the Palestinians’ national ambitions, he was asked later. To paraphrase his answer: too bad for them. “In a sense, it’s a tragedy. They want a full-blown state. I believe we cannot give a full-blown state. I think it can be less than that,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, Herzog challenged Bennett’s views, but allowed that they are gaining a foothold in the Israel public. That’s the reason why the Likud was “hijacked” by nationalist hardliners such as MKs Tzipi Hotovely and Ze’ev Elkin, who advocate annexing the West Bank, Herzog said. “They will not be able in any way — unfortunately, I must say — to be proactive or move forward on any plan that gives any hope for the region. And that means we’re doomed to eternal conflict and bloodshed.”

Herzog, in his opening statement, attacked Netanyahu for strengthening Hamas and weakening Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, thus distancing Israel from the prospects of peace. “Netanyahu’s main failure is that he has not presented in the last two years any viable option for a peace process with the Palestinians.”

Granted, Herzog added, Abbas has refused to meet Netanyahu and to recognize Netanyahu’s “initial gestures”; and sometimes, Herzog said, he “drives us nuts.” But Jerusalem needs to keep proactively seeking a final-status agreement, to show Israel’s citizens and the world that “we’ve tried our best and exhausted all opportunities for peace.”

While Labor is seen — and wants to be seen — as focusing mainly on socioeconomic issues, Herzog noted that his party has also publicly pledged to restart negotiations with Palestinians “without any preconditions” within three months, if elected. The creation of a Palestinian state, based on the pre-1967 lines with land swaps, is a key foreign-policy objective, he said, adding that an “interim agreement” could be a first step to achieve that goal.

“This is the only formula that can be viable, despite the fact that it looks difficult,” Herzog said.

Hanegbi positioned himself between the two candidates, blaming the Palestinians for their failure to acquire independence by quoting Abba Eban’s famous dictum that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” During his last term, Netanyahu froze settlement construction in the West Bank, hoping this “confidence-building measure would be powerful enough” to convince Abbas to return to the negotiation table, Hanegbi said. “It was not an easy decision to make, he had a lot of opposition within his party, but he made the decision.” Yet Abbas was unwilling to resume talks, and now “we’re stuck there,” Hanegbi concluded.

In a swipe at Bennett’s annexation plan, Hanegbi said that all right-wing leaders have at one point in their life had a similar dream — a dream killed by the demands of realpolitik that come with high political office, “because everyone becomes pragmatic once he becomes the prime minister,” he said. Even Netanyahu conducted negotiations with Abbas based on the Oslo Accords he used to oppose. “And Naftali,” Hanegbi added jokingly, “when he’s prime minister in 15 days, will also adapt such pragmatic policy.”

The four panelists: Herzog, Bennett, Hanegbi and Perry (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
The four panelists from left to right: Herzog, Bennett, Hanegbi and Perry (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Perry was the least engaging speaker of the four, often burying his head in his hands and impatiently looking at his watch. The weakest English speaker, he seemed to struggle to formulate his positions in a coherent fashion. On the question of the Palestinian conflict, he offered little more than the idea that the only solution is a resumption of peace talks.

“I think Israel should do everything, its utmost, in order to come back to the negotiating table and to find a compromise,” he said. “Personally, from my own experience, I know that we have partners.” There aren’t “easy partners,” he allowed, also admitting that the Palestinians have rejected “quiet generous Israeli offers” in the past. Yet Israel needs to look forward and arrive at a compromise,” he urged.

Perry said that of course he is aware of other plans to resolve the conflict but, hinting at Bennett, he said he doesn’t believe “Israel can really materialize them… The extreme right refuses to deal with the diplomatic issues and hides its head in the sand. And [Labor chairwoman Shelly] Yachimovich is aiding and debating the right instead of presenting an alternative.”

Toward the end of the debate, which was co-organized by The Israel Project and the Hebrew University, after the panelists had agreed on the need to thwart an Iran nuclear bomb and the importance of ties with Washington, they were asked to share a few final thoughts. “To tell you the truth regarding the election campaign, it doesn’t focus a lot about the issues we discussed today,” Herzog mused. “They are important, extremely important, but the Israeli public is dealing with other issues as well.”

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