CJN Article: "Old Ideas Rehashed At Facing Tomorrow Conference"

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CJN Article - old ideas rehashedThe third annual Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem closed with an impassioned message from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who challenged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to “have the guts” to face his people, and tell them that he will “accept the Jewish state.”

The conference, called Facing Tomorrow, attracted more than 3,500 people and presented lectures from politicians, scholars, religious and community leaders, and even celebrities on topics that ranged from the global economy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel and the Diaspora, and Jewish identity.

Although the “Facing Tomorrow” theme suggested that the speakers – including Israeli President Shimon Peres, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, pop music star Shakira and comedian Sarah Silverman – would give predictions and present ideas that looked to the future, many, including the prime minister, simply rehashed old ideas.

Netanyahu - Facing TomorrowNetanyahu, who spoke about Israel’s booming economy, investment in an education system that has fallen behind over the years and his ambition to relieve the world’s dependence on oil, reminded his captive audience that the road to peace begins with a statement from Abbas that he will accept the Jewish state.

But before he spoke about the possibility of a future that included a two-state solution, Netanyahu, speaking in Hebrew, began by acknowledging the soldier Gilad Schalit, who marked five years since Hamas kidnapped him during a cross-border raid near the Gaza Strip.

“If we are unified in our strength and continue to put pressure on Hamas, moral pressure, political pressure... each day, I believe we will be able to advance the release of Gilad Schalit until he comes home safely,” Netanyahu said.

Switching back to English, Netanyahu responded to a lecture given at the conference by Kadima leader Livni, who criticized him for his lack of vision for peace and his refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians.

“I believe peace is possible. I know some people think I don’t believe that and they are absolutely wrong,” he said. “Peace is possible and it is within our reach, but in order for there to be peace, we have to address the core issue that has eluded peace.”

He said the core issue, which has been a problem for the past 90 years, has been the “persistent refusal to accept the nation state of the Jewish people.”

He said that he had done his part to resume peace talks, when he said two years ago “he will accept a Palestinian state. Now President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority must do what I did two years ago. He must face his people, the Palestinian people and say, ‘I will accept the Jewish state.’”

He said the future of Israel is one with a “solid Jewish majority… and will continue to have a fully enfranchised Arab minority, but it is a Jewish state, with our blue and white flag, our national anthem, Hatikvah, our holidays, our history, all the elements of our national identity.”

Netanyahu added that while he hopes to be able to reach a two-state solution, he vowed that once they reach a peace agreement, “there will not be a demand for further subdivision of Israel,” and no sub-states in the Negev or Galilee.  

Peres, who took to the stage following the prime minister’s address, said he would also like to see peace with the Arabs.

“I would like the Palestinian state to become the first Arab state that enjoys democracy and freedom. I would like to see them living in peace and security and prosperity,” he said.

“I, like the prime minister, do believe peace is possible and it can come sooner than we think. We have to make the right decision, and there is no way but to meet in the middle road.”

Earlier in the week, the conference opened with a panel titled “My Recipe for a Better Tomorrow,” during which Colombian pop star Shakira, a UN goodwill ambassador, spoke about her global campaign for education.

Israel is “the perfect place to talk about how urgent it is to make education a priority,” she said, adding that a child who lives in poverty and doesn’t go to school is “10 times more likely to be recruited by a militant group,” and that “investing in education is the best strategy for peace and global stability.”

Comedian Sarah Silverman, a huge draw who headlined the opening plenary, didn’t offer anything of substance to the panel other than a tongue-in-cheek plan to get Israelis and Palestinians to work together to “power the world with the beautiful sun that they share.”

Later that evening, following “safe” presentations by Blair and philosopher and journalist Bernard Henri-Levy, author Amos Oz elicited both enthusiastic applause and merciless boos when he said that “Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is immoral and bad for Israel’s interests.”

Oz said that while he is “a man who loves Israel dearly,” he believes that “kicking Palestinian residents out of their homes in east Jerusalem and putting Israeli settlers in their place is immoral.”

He said the issue is not black and white, it’s light grey and dark grey, “a clash between right and right and sometimes, a clash between wrong and wrong.”

“No one is moving out,” he said, adding that if there is going to be a two-state solution, Israel has to give up some of its ancestral land, and the Palestinians will also have to give up on what they regard as their historical homeland.

“It’s going to be like an amputation, but it can be done and has to be done simply because there is no alternative… The patient – Israeli and Palestinian – is definitely ready for the surgery, but the doctors are cowards.”

Oz predicted that there will be two sovereign states – one Israeli, one Palestinian – sharing Jerusalem as the capital, but when that happens, neither side will be “dancing in the streets.”

Middle East adviser to the White House, Dennis Ross, who spoke during a panel titled “Global Perspectives for Tomorrow,” said he can “understand the impulse to avoid taking risks, to believe that one should wait until everything takes shape,” but the greatest risk of all would be to sit back and do nothing.

“Demographic trends cannot be waited out and they cannot be denied,” he warned.

Speaking on behalf of U.S. President Barak Obama, in light of the statement he made last month about what Israel needs to do to resume peace negotiations, he reiterated that Obama wants to work toward the establishment of “two states for two peoples,” but ultimately, it is between the leaders of the Israelis and the Palestinians to take action. Obama’s statement, which called on Israel to go back to its pre-1967 borders, along with negotiated land swaps, landed him in hot water and led Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reject Obama’s statement at the recent G8 summit.

Ross, insisting that the United States is Israel’s strongest supporter, and would only back a two-state solution that leaves Israel able to defend itself against any threats, clarified that Obama meant that Israelis and Palestinians would have to “negotiate a border that is different from the one that existed on June 4, 1967... that would allow for the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.”

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