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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Speaking at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington on Sunday night, opposition leader Tzipi Livni said that while she and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu differed on many issues, she was addressing the conference as an Israeli rather than as a politician.
"There are deep disagreements between the new government and the opposition, between myself and Prime Minister Netanyahu. They reflect real divisions in Israeli society about how to secure our country's future. But, just as there are disagreements, there is also a shared understanding about the challenges we face as Israelis and as members of the free world," Livni said.
She said, however, that as leader of the opposition she intended "to clearly present the principles I believe in to Israel and to the world.
"A responsible opposition owes this to the country, and I owe it to the citizens that voted for us."
Livni warned Israel's adversaries against mistaking the democratic process in the country for weakness: "I know that there will be those who see in differences of opinion an opportunity to weaken Israel - rather than evidence of the strength of our democracy. I will not allow my words to be exploited in this way. Even when we disagree, Kadima will always present a responsible and respectful alternative."
She then went on to discuss the two main foreign policy challenges faced by Israel: Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
On Iran, Livni lamented that "unfortunately, even today, Israel must fight for its existence. Still today, we face those that spread a culture of hate; that seek to destroy and not to build. We face those that dare deny the Holocaust and that publicly call - and plan - for Israel's destruction."
Alluding to the recent appearance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a UN conference on racism in Geneva, Livni said "these are voices of evil that are still, shamefully, given a platform in an organization created after World War II under the banner of 'never again'."
Livni dismissed Ahmadinejad's adoption of the Palestinian cause as mere opportunism: "We know too that Iran's ideology is not driven by any concern for the Palestinian cause. It is not a response to any Israeli policy. Iran is driven, first and foremost, by an extreme religious vision that denies the rights of others; rejects Israel's very right to exist and seeks to destabilize the entire Middle East. And it is the deadly combination of this radical ideology and nuclear weapons that no one can afford."
Striking a tone of unity, Livni emphasized to the convention that "on the issue of Iran - there is no opposition party in Israel."
Livni spoke of the need to rally Arab countries against Iran's ambitions of hegemony over the Middle East.
"We need the Arab and Muslim world to begin the process that I call: 'normalization in stages' with Israel. We need them to prove to a justly skeptical Israeli public, that peace will offer Israel strategic benefits across the Middle East; and allow Israel to take its rightful place as an integral part of the region.
"I know that some of these pragmatic states claim that we must resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before they can actively join the efforts against the extremists in our region.
"There are others, including some in Israel, for whom the existence of the threat is an excuse to avoid taking the difficult steps needed to advance co-existence. I do not accept either view."
However, the Kadima leader added, "I know that the extremists will do all they can to prevent us from resolving the conflict. They will continue to arm and fund Hamas and Hizbullah and will seek to create an environment that is focused not on realizing Palestinian rights, but denying Jewish ones."
Livni sought to clarify that her willingness for territorial compromise with the Palestinians was not borne out of a personal feeling of historic guilt but of pragmatism.
"We must understand that the conflict did not begin in 1967 or even in 1948. Those who believe this conflict can be solved by simply turning back time are mistaken.
"It is not just a matter of real estate. The roots of this conflict began in the refusal to recognize the rights of the Jewish people in their homeland, side by side with our Palestinian and Arab neighbors," she said.
"I, like Rahm Emmanuel, come from a family of Etzel fighters whose symbol was a map of the land of Israel on both sides of the Jordan river. I was taught that the Jewish people have a historic, national, religious and legal right to all the land.
"To this day, I believe in the right of the Jewish people to the entire land. I feel a deep, undying connection to the ancient land of Israel - Judea and Samaria - to places I was taken to as a girl after the Six Day War when we thought Jews and Arabs could live together in harmony between the River Jordan and the sea. I share and respect this sense of justice in our claim to the land. But my objective is different," Livni explained.
"As a Jew and a human being, Israel's existence as both a Jewish state and as a democracy are critically important to me. These values must exist in harmony not in contradiction. As a mother and a leader in Israel, I owe this to our children.
"To achieve this we need to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel. This is not a technical matter, it is a matter of our survival. And in the choice between giving up our values, the raison d'etre of Israel, and giving up part of the land - I choose the land.
"It is for this reason that I believe that embracing the vision of two states for two peoples - a vision that was recognized by the UN in 1947, and embraced by the United States - is not an Israeli concession but an Israeli interest. This is the only way to end the conflict."
"If we care about the future of our people in our homeland we will all find the courage and the wisdom to make the choices we can no longer afford to avoid," Livni concluded.