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At Herzliya Conference, a split on importance of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at the Herzliya Conference, June 8, 2014. (Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90

Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at the Herzliya Conference, June 8, 2014. (Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)

HERZLIYA, Israel (JTA) — Naftali Bennett and Tzipi Livni don’t agree on much.

Bennett, Israel’s economy minister, sees the West Bank as an inseparable part of the Jewish state and wants Israel to annex its settlements there. Livni, the justice minister, says Israel can remain a Jewish democracy only by evacuating settlements.

But on one thing they agree: Israel must break its status quo with the Palestinians.

Bennett and Livni were two of the five politicians who presented a range of responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Sunday at the annual Herzliya Conference, an elite gathering of Israeli politicians, military officials and security experts weighing in on the central issues facing Israel.

Their debate exposes the cracks in Israel’s diverse governing coalition. But the biggest division in Herzliya wasn’t between hawks and doves; it was between the politicians who prioritized addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the military officials who all but ignored it.

The assessment of the military leadership differed little from last year’s conference, despite the recent collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the subsequent unity agreement between the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, which is regarded as a terrorist group by most of the West.

Those developments, which the politicians treated as major changes, were mentioned only in passing by military officials, who focused instead on threats emanating from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.

“We’re in a Middle East that’s undergoing a jolt,” Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said in a speech Monday that focused mainly on tensions on Israel’s borders. “Dramatic instability is a constant in this region and we need to be ready.”

While the military officials were focused on missiles, strategic threats and regional alliances, the politicians were concerned mainly with Zionist values, domestic politics and international legitimacy. One after another, the leaders of five major Israeli parties put forward widely divergent proposals for how Israel should proceed following the failure of peace negotiations.

Bennett suggested partial annexation of the West Bank. Finance Minister Yair Lapid advocated staged withdrawal. Livni and Labor party Chairman Isaac Herzog called for a more aggressive approach to negotiations.

Each speaker criticized the others. Lapid and Bennett, once political allies, called each other’s proposals “delusional.”

“The era of Oslo has ended,” Bennett said. “Now the time has come to admit that it simply didn’t work. We need to think in a different way to create a better reality.”

Lapid said the absence of a two-state solution to the conflict could lead to Israel’s destruction and called for Israel to present a map of proposed borders ahead of resumed negotiations.

“There’s no reason to have settlements that won’t be in the territory of Israel in any final agreement, or to invest millions of shekels in areas that will be part of the Palestinian state,” Lapid said.

The only politicians who weren’t especially bothered by the current state of Israeli-Palestinian affairs were Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Interior Minister Gideon Saar, both of the ruling Likud party. Both dismissed the idea of territorial compromise and blamed the failure of the talks on the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

“I think we made a mistake with land for peace,” Yaalon said. “The conflict is not about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It’s about the existence of a Jewish national home.”

One issue of broad consensus among conference speakers was the need to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Speakers were skeptical that negotiations between Iran and world powers to scale back Iran’s nuclear program would succeed.

“It’s clear to us that this regime has not given up the option of a nuclear military capability and is striving toward it,” Yaalon said. “And it thinks it will succeed in this through negotiations with the West and a charm offensive.”

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, a Likud member, said a nuclear-armed Iran constitutes a far greater danger than the stalemate with the Palestinians.

“If a difficult scenario comes to be 10 years from now, with Iran holding tens of weapons, all peace plans will be a total failure,” Steinitz said. “With a nuclear Iran, even [Israeli President] Shimon Peres will need to store away the peace plans.”

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