It wasn’t long before a small auditorium in downtown Washington erupted in debate as Member of Knesset Michael Oren, of the centrist Kulanu party, and MK Merav Michaeli, of the center-left Zionist Union, began butting heads over which issues affect how Israelis cast their ballots.
“[Oren says] the thing that interests [Israelis] the least is the peace process,” Michaeli said, in response to Oren’s claim that Israelis are most interested in housing, cost of living and security. “[But he] will argue that they vote, not according to their social or economic situation … but on issues that relate to the peace process.”
“I don’t see security as relating to the peace process,” Oren interrupted.
“Isn’t it my turn now?” asked Michaeli, to the audience’s amusement.
Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, was caught in the crossfire. “I’m arguing with myself” he said during one of the exchanges between the two MKs.
The three were featured on a July 8 panel discussion held at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy to discuss Israeli perspectives on international peace initiatives.
Eran began the forum by discussing efforts such as France’s proposals for the creation of a Palestinian state, as well as Egyptian, Russian and Palestinian initiatives.
Traditionally, Israel has believed the only road to peace with its neighbors is through bilateral direct negotiations, Eran said. That idea is “based on the
notion that the international community, by and large, is not balanced and is not supportive of the Israeli cause.”
Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, quickly dismissed recent international initiatives to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He said he was skeptical that Israel would be able to influence the plans.
The efforts by the French, President Obama and others represent the “the nexus between international efforts that are not with the blessing of the state of Israel,” Oren said, adding that Israel “has been a punching bag” during the past several years.
He emphasized that Israel’s political center supports a two-state solution, but “it is not tenable for Israel to remain passive in the face of these international initiatives.”
The desire for Israel to take control of its future was one of the few points Oren and Michaeli agreed upon. However, Michaeli said the Israel-Palestinian conflict has had a profound effect on Israelis.
“We are defined by the conflict. Israel has existed twice as long with the conflict [since 1967] in this structure than it existed before it,” she said. “We do not recognize ourselves without the Palestinian conflict.”
Michaeli argued that the conflict has become a part of Israel’s core identity, often being used as the cause of other concerns in Israeli life. She said the peace process is about Israel redefining itself, and therefore the country must ask: “What do we want to achieve?”
While she believes a Palestinian state is in Israel’s interest, she questioned her colleagues’ commitment to that idea.
“I know for a fact that big parts of [the] government do not want to achieve the two-state solution,” said Michaeli, adding that an alternative is “something we have never heard from our prime minister.”
Israel insists on direct bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians. But Eran said “time is running out” on that option.
He argued that even if the Palestinians accepted Israel’s security fence as its border, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 settlers would still be living within the Palestinian territories. With Israel still reeling from the consequences of a few thousand settlers removed for its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Eran said he cannot imagine any Israeli government, right or left, doing the same to West Bank settlers.
“Because time is running out and I don’t see any possibility that the two sides will plunge into direct negotiations,” said Eran. “It’s time that the international community create some sort of guidelines for the future solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”