Netanyahu Surprises at 10th Annual Herzliya Conference

Israelis continue to yearn for a peace that remains elusive. So suggested the three-and-a-half days of vigorous give-and-take at the 10th annual Herzliya Conference on Israel’s national security.

Organized by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, the international conference featured not only a culminating address last night by the prime minister of Israel, but also an historic address the evening before by Salam Fayyad, the first prime minister of the Palestinian Authority to come to Israel to give a speech since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004. Taken together, the words of the two prime ministers offered cause for hope even as they avoided or obscured the fundamental obstacles to peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu surprised. Although he emphasized “engagement,” instead of focusing on the obvious issues -- the Palestinians, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran -- he argued for “engagement with tradition, Zionism, our past and our future.” Such engagement, he maintained, reflects the recognition that Israel’s military strength is inseparable from its economic strength, and that preservation of both depends on education broadly conceived. According to Netanyahu, Israel must dedicate itself to schooling its children from an early age not only in math and science, but also and especially in the history, culture, and values of the Jewish people, which are rooted in the Bible and love of the land of Israel.

Notwithstanding these grand themes, engagement of a more politically conventional sort was on Netanyahu’s mind as well. At the beginning of his speech, he revealed that he has reason “to hope that in the coming weeks we will renew the peace process with the Palestinians without preconditions.” This willingness to pursue political negotiations is a departure for Netanyahu. In his campaign last January, he had argued that Israel should concentrate on assisting West Bank Palestinians in developing their economy, but avoided mentioning, or otherwise opening the door to, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

In his speech the previous evening, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Fayyad -- who sat beside and shook hands with Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, whom he followed on stage -- insisted on the Palestinians’ right to statehood. Indeed, an independent Palestinian state, he stressed, is the indispensable condition for lasting peace. Palestinians under his leadership, he said, have every intention of continuing to enhance their ability to govern themselves by developing civil society, strengthening the economy, and building political institutions that will form the basis of a Palestinian state. At the same time, he declared that Israel must do its part to make Palestinian independence a reality. To that end, Fayyad called on Israel to cease military operations in the West Bank, recognize East Jerusalem as an integral part of a Palestinian state, and lift what he called “the siege on Gaza.”