Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, left, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, center, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni at a cabinet meeting, May 13, 2013. Photo by Emil Salman
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A discussion at the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday regarding the peace process with the Palestinians uncovered just how deep the divisions are on this issue in the government and within the ruling coalition.

While Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is in charge of talks with the Palestinians, explained why a Palestinian state is in Israel's interest, Habayit Hayehudi MKs attacked her, saying her statements do not represent the government's position.

The lengthy discussion, which lasted more than two hours, only underscored the question marks over the Israeli government's real position vis-a-vis the peace process and the commitment of its members to the principle of two states for two peoples.

The divisive issue came up during the first five minutes of the discussion, when former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) interrupted Livni: "Does the government already have a uniform position regarding Secretary of State John Kerry's initiative?" he asked. "It seems there are substantial divides inside the government."

Livni did not avoid the question, saying that "the government's shared goal is to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. It is no secret that there are differences among government members over the Palestinian issue and what an agreement with them should look like, but the policy is negotiations based on two national states which will bring an end to the conflict."

MK Orit Strock from Habayit Hayehdi cut Livni off. "Two states for two peoples is not the government's official position," she said. "It is not part of the government's guiding principles, and for good reason. This is perhaps Netanyahu's position and your position, but it has not been accepted as the government's position."

In response, MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) asked Livni during the question period: "I wish you a lot of psychological strength and a lot of faith, but I am very pessimistic ... What is worrying me is not a Palestinian state but the existence of the Jewish state. I am in doubt. Time is not on our side," said Ben-Eliezer.

MK Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid) also made a point of responding to Struck. Despite the alliance between the head of Yesh Atid Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi's Naftali Bennett, Hoffman did not hesitate to attack Habayit Hayehudi. "How is it possible to expect the Palestinians to enter negotiations when part of our government opposes a Palestinian state?" he asked.

Speaking after Hoffman, MK Yoni Chetboun (Habayit Hayehudi) agreed with him: "The government has not even decided that it supports two nations for two peoples," Chetboun told Livni.

MK Moti Yogev (Habayit Hayehudi) continued the thought, saying, "Two nations for two peoples is disconnected from reality."

Watching the exchanges as if somewhat amused, MK Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) asked Livni: "Are you a lone wolf in this cabinet or a fig leaf for the government's true policy on the Palestinian issue?"

Another Labor colleague, MK Nachman Shai, then joined in. "Does the government's decision to legalize illegal outposts help your efforts or hurt them?" he asked.

Livni answered him quickly, saying, "The political environment where I am now is the result of the decision of your party not to join the coalition," Livni told Shai.

The cabinet does not have a unified position on freezing construction in the settlements, even if it were to be done as a confidence-building measure toward the Palestinians, Livni told the committee. Despite this, Livni said she believes that construction should be halted in isolated settlements outside the large settlement blocs.

"Construction in the isolated settlements in the West Bank is intended to prevent an agreement with the Palestinians," she said. "Non-construction in those places has no strategic significance, and I think there are prices we can pay," she added.

Livni warned the committee that if the negotiations with the Palestinians are not renewed, the Palestinians will return to their unilateral moves in the United Nations and European countries will push diplomatic initiatives of their own and then try to force them on Israel.

"There is no vacuum," said committee chairman and former Foreign Minister MK Avigdor Lieberman (Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu). "If we do not initiate there will be others who will put plans on the table. Therefore, also those who want only conflict management such as you, need to support restarting the negotiations."

As time passes, the conditions are becoming worse for Israel, said Livni. "If we reach a dead end and do not succeed in renewing the negotiations there will be serious consequences for us," she said near the end of the session. "Not reaching an agreement with the Palestinians will lead to the end of Zionism," said Livni.

Struck, who attacked Livni throughout the entire discussion and interrupted her several times, made the end of the session sound more like a demonstration than a committee meeting.

"This is our land, this is our land," she said.

Livni, who had already gotten up to leave the room, turned and answered: "This is our land, but the question is if this state will remain ours or not."