(photo credit: )
Hours after the last battalion of troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, representatives of the country's three largest political parties presented their views on what the country's next moves should be.
Addressing an audience of mainly retired security and defense officials at a Council for Peace and Security conference in Ramat Gan, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima), National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) and former deputy prime minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) reviewed all the options for achieving peace with the Palestinians, and focused on the pros and cons of the Saudi peace plan.
Sheetrit, who spoke first, expressed his support in principle for the Saudi Peace Initiative, which requires that Israel withdraw completely to her pre-June 1967 borders in return for full normalization of ties with the Arab world and an official end to the conflict.
"It was always slightly difficult for me to believe in the Palestinian track," Sheetrit said. "Just as it has been difficult for [the Palestinians] to take concrete steps towards peace. They never had a leader willing to sign an agreement, and those leaders that are willing, always seem to find themselves alone.
"But on the other hand, the terms of any peace agreement are changing, and they're only getting worse for us," he said.
Sheetrit explained that given a lack of partnership on the Palestinian side, reinforced by the latest round of fighting in Gaza, it was time to look at other options.
The current division in the Arab world between extremist organizations and moderate Arab states, he said, has allowed for countries like Saudi Arabia, which find itself threatened by a strengthening Iran and its proxy armies in Hamas and Hizbullah, to come forward and extend their hands in peace.
"The only way for the Saudis to isolate Iran is to make a peace agreement with Israel," Sheetrit said. "Therefore, the Saudi plan is an extraordinary opportunity to begin the give-and-take process. I prefer not waste time on the Palestinian track, and instead focus on the Saudis.
"Even though negotiating with the Arab leaders is tougher than negotiating with the Palestinians, at least you know that you're dealing with a leader that can actually implement change," Sheetrit continued. "With them, we make an agreement and the conflict is over; we can't say that for sure with the Palestinians, especially given the popularity still enjoyed by Hamas in Gaza and in the West Bank."
Nevertheless, Sheetrit explained, the only way to deal with any negotiations between the Jewish state and moderate Arab ones, was through a respectful dialogue, void of distrust.
"Those who think that we can beat them with strength, or that we can outsmart them, I'm afraid they're mistaken," Sheetrit said. "We have to negotiate, and we have to leave the territories. This is the only way I see a better future for us, for our children, and for their children."
Ben-Eliezer also voiced his party's support for the Saudi initiative, as long as it could be open to minor tweaks and changes.
"Israel has been in the territories for 42 years now," Ben-Eliezer said. "And every day that goes by, the situation gets worse. A one-state solution is now being discussed on the Palestinian street, and Hamas is only getting stronger, even in light of the deadly blow we just dealt them in Gaza.
"Hamas has not be taken out, nor will we be able to take them out," Ben-Eliezer continued. "Theirs is an ideology and not just a military organization, and it will remain.
"In that vein, I want to point out that I, along with the Labor Party, have supported the Saudi initiative as a jumping-off point for negotiations, since its inception in 2002. It is a vision of two states for two people, and the Saudi's prominence in the Arab world lends to the legitimacy of the agreement."
After the first two speakers, the Likud's Shalom took the stage and agreed with some of their points, namely that Hamas remained a strong force on the Palestinian side, and that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was too weak to sign an agreement of any significance with Israel.
"But that doesn't mean that Likud supports the Saudi initiative," Shalom said.
"Only an hour ago, the new president of the United States made a phone call to Abu Mazen [Abbas] - the first international phone call of his presidency. It probably wasn't spur-of-the-moment, and I imagine that it was planned well in advance. But it shows that for the Americans, Abu Mazen is going to be the Palestinian address for the United States."
Shalom expressed doubt about that choice, saying that the American push for democracy in the Middle East had empowered the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
"He called Abu Mazen, and that's great, but the people sitting in control of Gaza are Hamas, and if we let them, they'll take over in the West Bank as well.
"Against the PLO it was a political battle, but against Hamas, it's a religious battle," Shalom continued. "They won't even say that this land is Palestinian land, nor will they say that it's Arab land. For them this is Muslim land and no one has the power to give it up. So who do we have to talk to?
"We have to decide, do we want a full democracy, which enables extremists, or something less than that, that gives us someone to talk to? Abu Mazen can't go to Gaza, and what we need to do, instead of the Saudi initiative, is embrace countries like Egypt and Jordan. We can even embrace the Saudis, but [Likud] will never agree to their peace plan."
In his closing remarks, council president and retired general Danny Rothschild said that the latest round of fighting in Gaza gave Israel a unique and timely opportunity to look into peace options with the Saudis.
"The Gaza situation reminded moderate Arab sates of the problems they face at home with their own extremist groups, and the Iranian threat that ties them all together," Rothschild said.
"I've never seen the Saudis give anything so generous, and why are they so generous? Because they know that if they don't make an agreement with Israel, the Iranians will.
"What I'm trying to say is that if we wait, we might have to settle for something less than what's being offered right now, and I will say, that right now, there is no better option than the Saudi peace plan."