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Prime Ministerial candidates Binyamin Netanyahu of Likud, Amir Peretz of Labor and Ehud Olmert of Kadima spoke on three successive nights at this week's Herzliya Conference on the Balance of Israel's National Security, which was organized by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.
They each delivered an address in prime time that summarized where they intend to take the country if they emerge victorious in the March 28 election. Each speech started at the same time and was delivered from the same podium, but the approaches of the candidates to solving Israel's problems could not be more different.
Following each candidate's speech, his political rivals released statements accusing him of going in the wrong direction. The Likud accused Olmert of shifting leftward, the National Union accused Netanyahu of veering too far to the center and Peretz's rivals in Labor accused him of going nowhere.
But a closer examination of the speeches reveals that Netanyahu, Olmert and Peretz delivered distinct opinions that fit their positions on the Right, Center and Left of the political map.
They agreed only on consensus issues, such as that a Hamas victory in the Palestinian election would be a bad thing.
They disagreed on key issues, such as where Israel's borders should be and what concessions could be made to the Palestinians, whether there could be another unilateral withdrawal and whether Jerusalem could be divided.
On the border issue, Netanyahu outlined his plan for "defensible borders," which he defined as including the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights, the Judean desert, an undivided Jerusalem, settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria, the hilltops overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport, the Gush Dan region and Road 443.
Olmert's advisers said he made a point of defining Israel's prospective borders in terms of demography rather than security. Olmert said that Israel needed permanent borders because of the demographic threat.
"We must create a clear boundary as soon as possible, which will reflect the demographic reality on the ground," Olmert said. "Israel will maintain control over the security zones, the Jewish settlement blocs, and those places which have supreme national importance to the Jewish people."
Peretz was less specific, saying only that "the large settlement blocs must remain part of Israel."
On the possibility of a unilateral withdrawal, Netanyahu was clearly against it, Peretz endorsed the idea, while Olmert was purposely vague.
"We would prefer an agreement," Olmert said. "If our expected partners in the negotiations in the framework of the road map do not uphold their commitments, we will preserve the Israeli interest in every way."
The Hebrew phrase "bechol derech efsharit" (in every way), which leaves open the option for a unilateral withdrawal, was originally rendered "at all costs" in the version passed out to foreign journalists at the conference. It was changed to the less provocative "in every way" in the version of the speech published on the Herzliya Conference Web site.
Netanyahu said clearly, "I say no to a unilateral withdrawal," and spoke about the need for Palestinian reciprocity.
"The continuation of unilateral withdrawal without receiving anything must stop," Netanyahu said. "In business there are no free lunches, and this is also true with politics. There can be no free withdrawals."
Peretz said that if Hamas won the Palestinian election, Israel would not accept political deadlock for very long and would examine the possibility of "physical, political and military separation" between Israel and the Palestinians.
"This separation will help us shape our lives and our priorities while allowing the Palestinians to rebuild their society," Peretz said. "Such separation will allow Israel to converge into itself, give up many of the isolated settlements in Judea and Samaria and keep the settlement blocs."
On the Jerusalem issue, Netanyahu and Olmert committed themselves to keeping the city, including its Arab neighborhoods undivided, while Peretz outlined the compromises that he was ready to make.
Olmert included "a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty" and Netanyahu "greater Jerusalem" in their borders. Netanyahu also hinted at the need to build in the E-1 area between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim.
Peretz explained that he favored giving the Palestinians the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem for demographic, economic and security reasons. He said it was wrong to annex 230,000 Palestinians who view themselves as Palestinians and who voted in the Palestinian election.
"Jerusalem will be Israel's eternal capital within borders that guarantee a Jewish majority and character with international recognition," Peretz said. "Let's tell the truth and protect a strong and Jewish Jerusalem, recognized in the whole world as the capital of Israel."
THE ADVISERS to the three candidates who helped write the texts said they also had very different goals in mind for the speeches.
Peretz had to show that that he could speak on diplomatic and security issues like a professional, and that he had experience with such issues. He purposely pointed out that he endorsed a Palestinian state already in 1984, when he was mayor of Sderot.
"The goal of the speech was to prove that the main issue dividing the three candidates was the socioeconomic issue, where Peretz has a clear advantage," a Peretz adviser said.
Netanyahu's advisers rejected the interpretation of political commentators who said that he tried to reach wavering centrist voters with a speech that included a vow to make compromises to help the Palestinian people.
They pointed out that Netanyahu conditioned concessions on there being a responsible Palestinian leadership to negotiate with, the end of terror, Israel preserving its security borders, the security fence being moved eastward onto land that the Supreme Court ruled Palestinian territory and the Palestinians accepting Israel expanding the settlement blocs. The advisers said that in the unlikely event that the Palestinians accepted every condition, Netanyahu's peace deal still would have to pass a national referendum.
Olmert's advisers said the goal of his speech was for him to look presidential. They said he purposely didn't mention Iran - as Netanyahu and Peretz did - because threats from a head of state have different connotations from those of an opposition leader. He also made a point of thanking Netanyahu for his contributions as finance minister and then explaining why he, as prime minister, would do things differently.
For Olmert's advisers what mattered most was that the speech was broadcast in its entirety on all three television networks with an incredible 46 percent combined rating. They said they handled the speech as if they were planning a "State of the Union address for the president of the United States.
"Positioning Olmert as prime minister mattered more in the speech than his actual positions," an Olmert adviser said. "People weren't looking for headlines in the speech; they were looking for continuity. They wanted to see that Olmert is continuing on Sharon's path and they got it."
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