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February 01, 2010

Herzliya Dispatch #1:The two state solution is coming, whether you like it or not.
Posted by Joel Rubin

If there was one consistent theme that dominated the Herzliya conference today, it was the argument, made time and again by Israeli political and military leaders to a largely cautious audience, that a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in Israel’s interest.

“Israel must be part of the pragmatic camp” in the Middle East said leader of the opposition Tzipi Livni.

“We have to have a real plan to implement the two state solution” said former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.

“80% of Israelis support a two state solution…” and “…we must implement both a bottoms-up and top-down approach (to the conflict) now” said Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor.

Not surprisingly, these strong pronouncements did not inspire the crowd to jump to its feet.

Of course, there is much more on the agenda here, as Israel’s top political-military leaders, thinkers, strategists, and officials networked with a diverse set of American, European, Asian, and Arab leaders. Discussions about the global economy, climate change, Israel’s public image, and the waning influence of the U.S. dominated. Permeating through almost every discussion was the backdrop of the looming danger posed by Iran, creating a sense of seriousness and concern.

And everyone made sure to make nice about the Obama administration.

The most powerful speaker, for my money, was Tzipi Livni. She delivered a forceful keynote early in the morning, barely looking at her notes and armed with a honed, strategic analysis. Critical of the current Israeli government, yet mindful of the need to be diplomatic, she demonstrated big league skills.

Dan Meridor too looked like a calm, reasonable voice. Sober and intelligent, he spoke of the broader strategic challenges, even bluntly stating the Israel made a mistake by not making more of an effort with Syria.

And the Americans showed their best, with Dan Kurtzer and Elliott Abrams engaging in a vigorous debate about the peace process. Abrams argued that the only year in the last 20 that didn’t have Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was the past one, implying that Obama has failed at peacemaking and that seeking a political deal for a state was the wrong approach. He also argued that the Palestinians should focus instead on creating the trappings of a state now, and wait for a political deal for an actual state later. Kurtzer countered that yes, 20 years of negotiations had failed to produce a state, either on the ground or at the political level, but instead spoke about how it was time to be more aggressive, not less. He also reminded the audience that Abrams’ recommendation of a bottoms-up only approach had been tried many times before, producing neither an improvement on the ground nor an actual state.

Interestingly, an early morning panel with Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, American Ambassador to Israel Jim Cunningham, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, and former U.S. Ambassador Alfred Moses entitled “Still Special: US-Israel Relations?” was nearly unanimous in its declarations that the relationship has never been better. Of course, it only took a few questions to notice that several of the panelists had real concerns, but they were all at great pains to show that relations are in top shape, handing a symbolic victory to President Obama after a tough year.

So overall, the strategic clarity expressed by the Israelis about the need for a Palestinian state – none of whom declared this for sentimental reasons – was striking. Approaches on how to get there differed widely. The rationale was often based on cold calculation related to consolidating relations with the Arabs against Iran. No one seemed particularly optimistic about the prospects of this goal even being achieved. But it was clear that this was a message that met the audience head-on, knocking them off balance.

There may not yet either be peace, or even a clear way to get there, but this day may well have granted Obama a subtle victory, as the broad political recognition in Israel of the importance of a two state solution was made urgently clear.

I can’t wait to hear Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak discuss this issue together tomorrow night.

 This was first published on the Huffington Post here.

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