Jerusalem — North American delegates to the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, meeting here this week, got a preview of the substance and styles of the three main candidates for prime minister in Israel’s upcoming elections. And the candidates had a chance to see how their appearances were received by the leaders of diaspora Jewry.
Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, a former prime minister and leader of the right-of-center Likud Party, used the opportunity to deliver an explicit, stump-style campaign speech to the thousands of delegates Wednesday morning. His topic was the Israeli economy, which he addressed by emphasizing his accomplishments as finance minister several years ago, asserting that Israel “will not be spared the waves of the [global economic] tsunami, but we will be in better shape because we made radical changes in 2003 and are now sitting on higher land.”
Netanyahu, appearing confident and comfortable with his audience, which greeted him with a standing ovation, said that Israel should continue the peace process with the Palestinians, but he insisted that its focus should be inverted from “99 percent political and 1 percent economic” to the other way around. Moving ahead rapidly with economic development for the Palestinians would strengthen the position of moderates, he said, and “give them a stake in peace.”
He spoke of his plans for providing security, improving the economy, cracking down on organized crime and improving Israel’s educational system as though he was about to take the helm of the government. Supporters call that style self-assurance, critics call it arrogance; most polls show Netanyahu leading in the Feb. 10 national elections.
His leading rival is Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister and head of the centrist Kadima Party, who is less known to North American audiences. Highly respected as bright, capable and honest, Livni lacks Netanyahu’s poise and ease with public speaking and campaigning. Even her political billboards, which proclaim her “good for the state,” portray a somber Livni.
But she has been coached to soften her look and style of late, and she smiled broadly as she rose to the podium to enthusiastic applause, especially from the women in the audience when she was introduced as hoping to be Israel’s second female prime minister.
Livni’s English is improved, though not as smooth as Netanyahu’s, who sounds like an American. And she seemed to be striving to be more animated in her gestures and cadence. She injected a bit of politics into her remarks, praising UJC Israel director Nachman Shai and Jewish Agency head Ze’ev Bielski as possible new additions to Kadima’s list. (Bielski has not announced that he is leaving is post to run for the Knesset, though word is expected soon; Shai has said he is leaving his job after the GA.)
Livni’s theme was tikkun olam, repairing the world, and she said it must start with “helping ourselves,” personally and nationally.
Noting that Israel is still fighting for its existence and being delegitimized in Europe, she said the international community must not only accept Israel’s right to exist, “but as a ‘Jewish state’ — and this is not obvious anymore.”
She praised President Bush for “adding those two words” in his recent General Assembly speech at the United Nations, adding that not all Western leaders have done so.
Being a Jewish state is not just about numbers but about being both a democracy and preserving the historical, cultural and educational values of Judaism, she said, drawing applause when she stressed that a Jewish state “is not a monopoly of rabbis, it’s what each of us feels inside.”
In calling on diaspora Jews to fight anti-Semitism, Livni said she has decided that Israel will not participate at next year’s United Nations-sponsored Durban II conference because it appears to be moving toward a duplication of the first talks, in 2001, which became a platform for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate messages. She called on the international community to stay away as well.
Justifying the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which she heads, Livni said that it is in Israel’s interest to achieve a two-state solution. “But our ultimate goal is security,” she said, “and we need to see changes on the other side. We are not going to just throw [the Palestinian Authority] the keys.”
Ehud Barak, the former prime minister and current defense minister who heads the Labor Party, on the political left, addressed the delegates on Monday as part of a tribute to the Israel Defense Forces. Greeted warmly, he gave a low-key talk that stuck closely to his topic, stressing the strength of Israel’s army, which he called the most effective within a 1,000-mile radius of Jerusalem. In speaking of the various threats facing Israel, Barak said Israel “will not remove any options from the table” in dealing with a potentially nuclear Iran. “The less we talk about it, the better,” he said, calling for tougher sanctions.
He was non-committal about talks with Syria, saying “we will have to see,” while noting that a diplomatic breakthrough with Damascus could stave off another round of violence with Lebanon.
Barak said that while Sderot and other Jewish communities near Gaza have been under rocket attacks from militant Palestinian groups for seven years, Israel will respond “at the right time.”
He did not make direct references to the upcoming elections. Many observers believe he and Labor will have a difficult time standing out in the crowded field.
With Ehud Olmert, who spoke at the opening GA plenary to a bland reception, soon to leave office in disgrace, one could sum up the prime minister’s race as between two men who have held the office — with the public waiting to see if either learned enough lessons and humility from past mistakes – and a woman who seems capable of holding the job but perhaps not the political savvy needed to be elected.