|Insight on Israel|
|World Economic Forum on the Middle East 2006|
|Christopher Dickey, Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor, Newsweek, France, opened the session by explaining the subject will be limited to internal Israeli politics, as opposed to a further discussion of Palestinian issues. He then complimented Isaac Herzog, Minister of Tourism of Israel, for giving a concise and incisive summary of recent Israeli politics. Herzog sketched Israeli politics that:|
· currently lacks one major political party to act as an anchor. The result is a ruling coalition that is both stable for the moment and fragile for the longer term;
· has a parliament focused on social programmes, much less concentrated on war and peace issues;
· must face an immediate challenge to pass the national budget. This will grant parliament a six-month grace period of "tranquillity," before the electorate will expect results.
Herzog said it is a mistake to characterize Israeli politics as chaotic despite the recent upheavals in the wake of Ariel Sharon's incapacitation and the subsequent election. Instead, the Israeli political system is an "impressive" and durable one, well positioned to absorb current dilemmas and deal with the challenges at hand.
Avishay Braverman, Member of the Knesset, Israel, noted that the Gaza pullout was conducted "quite peacefully" and had nearly full public support, but that today's terrorism attack on a children's classroom, launched from Gaza onto uncontested Israeli land, completely undermines Israelis' faith in the notion of giving over land to Palestinian authority. Herzog agreed that while Israelis in general terms still support withdrawal from the West Bank, "Israelis are not willing to take further unilateral steps" to withdraw while their security is under attack. This is the mainstream view, he said, and while settlers still have an important voice in Israeli politics, it is much weakened. But the West Bank is not viewed as the same as Gaza, said Silvan Shalom, Member of the Knesset, Israel. Many Israelis who never thought of Gaza as part of Biblical Israel do think of the West Bank as part of the Biblical Holy Land. Shalom also questioned the Labour Party's willingness to unilaterally hand over West Bank land to the Palestinians. "I understand land for peace. But land for nothing?" he asked rhetorically.
Braverman, a former president of Hebrew University, noted that Israeli youth are increasingly disengaged from politics. But he said that the current political challenge – to make real the two-state solution supported by the majority on both sides – demands action. "It is a moral issue. Justice is to partition the Holy Land into two states – but justice also means I must also live in security." Participants reacted with hearty applause to Braverman's words, but Smadar Perry, Editor, Middle East, Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel, warned that his words echo what every prime minister says upon taking office – but that no Israeli prime minister wants to be the one to enter the history books as the person who partitioned Jerusalem and created a Palestinian state.
Bahieldin H. Z. El Ibrachy, Managing Partner, Ibrachy and Dermarkar, Egypt, said the way forward in the region is to co-invest in each other's countries and to cooperate economically. Shalom emphasized this path as well, pointing out that Egypt and Jordan have sent back their ambassadors to Israel and that he is meeting foreign ministers from Arab countries at this World Economic Forum meeting to hammer out more cooperation. Shalom said, "if you want to help the Palestinians, then you should have better relations with Israel. It is only together that we can move forward."
A question from the floor about the continuing build-up of settlements on Palestinian land garnered clear exasperation from Herzog, who pointed out that very few new buildings are under construction in the West Bank, and that in any case these are additions to existing settlements that under any future arrangement would remain part of the state of Israel. Herzog said this kind of uninformed and routine exaggeration from partisan international NGOs does not help matters.