In outlining their party’s platform on future Palestinian relations, the leaders of Israel’s three main political parties offered few differences this week as they resumed their campaigning following a three-week hiatus caused by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s crippling stroke.
"What distinguished their performance was precisely the fact that both [Labor Party leader Amir] Peretz and [Likud Party leader Benjamin] Netanyahu made an effort to move towards the center," said Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and co-founder of the Israeli-Palestinian Web site bitterlemons.com. "A recent poll found that fully one-fourth of the people planning to vote for the center had moved from the right," he continued. "And Peretz feels he can risk moving towards the center and not lose too many votes on the left."
Peretz, Netanyahu and Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the leader of the Kadima Party, each outlined their platforms at the annual Herzliya Conference. The Israeli election is March 28.
Danny Rothschild, president of Israel’s Council for Peace and Security and a member of the Israel Policy Forum’s advisory council, said he too found "very little difference between the three major parties. They were playing with words, but they were not really different. All three spoke of the need for two states for two people, about the demographic issue and of the need to have defined, secure borders. The differences were in the wording but not in the essence."
He said he was pleased to hear such views because his Council for Peace and Security has been advocating them for the last four years. "There is no doubt that everybody is moving towards the center," Rothschild said. "Our council says very clearly that although we prefer negotiating with the Palestinians, we are not ruling out unilateral steps if we donít have a partner to work with. And that is exactly what the three of them are saying."
But Hillel Frisch, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said he detected a difference in how they would handle Jerusalem’s future should there be negotiations with the Palestinians.
"If Likud would come to power, I donít think it would divide Jerusalem," he said. "Therefore, there wouldnít be a real negotiation [on this issue]. I think that Kadima is already talking of dividing Jerusalem. Netanyahu still talks of a united Jerusalem and Olmert speaks of a Jerusalem that is Israel’s capital forever and not a united Jerusalem. It is a small difference, but very significant."
(In Olmert’s speech at the conference, however, the media quoted him as saying Jerusalem must remain "united under Israeli control; there can be no Jewish state without Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.")
Peretz is not as obtuse. He has said Jerusalem would remain Israel’s eternal capital but that Israel should retain only its Jewish neighborhoods.
Frisch said a poll conducted by the Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University found that "something like 46 percent of Israelis are willing to give up the Arab quarter of Jerusalem for a lasting, genuine peace."
But he added that "since most Israelis donít believe peace is in the offing, you have to distinguish between practical and in principle. And in principle, clearly the Israeli public is moving to what was formerly the left [position]."
A poll released Tuesday by the Dahaf Research Institute confirmed Israelis’ pessimism about peace prospects, finding that fully 48 percent of Israelis expect no change in the Palestinian conflict for the next 20 years and only 20 percent foresee it being resolved. Frisch said also that he was "encouraged to hear" Olmert’s pledge to "keep security zones and main settlement blocs." That means, Frisch said, that in drawing its temporary boundary, Israel would "not only follow demography but security considerations." In so doing, Israel might "consider enlarging the settlement blocs for security reasons and to maintain a separation between the Palestinian Authority and Jordan."
Security concerns are particularly important when taking into account any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank that would end up putting Ben Gurion Airport within range of Kassam rockets, Frisch stressed. "No insurance carrier would insure any foreign airline seeking to land at Ben Gurion Airport if a Kassam rocket came even close to the airport," he observed. Netanyahu stressed that very point in his speech, saying that to protect the airport he would move the security barrier back to its original route. Israel’s Supreme Court ordered the original route changed, saying in June 2004 that it "enveloped 35,000 Palestinians in penal-like conditions."
Netanyahu said also that as prime minister he would never return to the 1967 border, and that any territorial concession would be made through negotiation and not unilaterally.
Peretz in his speech called for the immediate completion of the West Bank security barrier and said that if elected he would keep the large settlement blocs, evacuate the other West Bank settlements and pay settlers who moved "fair compensation" so that they would be able to build a new life in Israel proper.
The Dahaf poll found that 27 percent of Israelis expect Israel to annex the major settlement blocs within the next 20 years; only 18 percent believe Israel would return to the 1967 border, with minor adjustment. And the poll said that 34 percent of Israelis expect Jerusalem holy sites to remain under Israeli sovereignty during the next 20 years, and 38 percent expect Jewish sovereignty to remain over the Western Wall but that the Temple Mount would be turned over to the Palestinians. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Hadassah Hospital said Sharon’s doctors met Wednesday with two specialists from a long-term care facility. Since suffering a stroke Jan. 4, Sharon has been in a coma in critical but stable condition. There was no word on whether he would be moved in the near future.