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Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Labor MK Shimon Peres offered competing visions of the future of Israel in separate GA sessions yesterday, in which they discussed the path to peace, nanotechnology and trade routes.

Netanyahu proposed a new project that he said would make Israel a hub for transferring goods from Asia to Europe, as part of a model of arriving at peace with the Palestinians by first strengthening security and economic prosperity. Peres, meanwhile, said leaders must choose between peace and war and be innovative, and that Israel must concentrate on science and technology.

"The first call of leadership," said Peres, is to "make up your mind." A true leader, he said, must decide whether to take the risk of war or pay the price of peace, but should recognize that delaying the decision is "costly and dangerous."

Peres said his approach from the time the state was created has not changed much: "It's better to have an immediate, independent Jewish state upon part of the land than to have all of the land and risk the establishment of the Jewish state."

But Netanyahu said the "old model" of making a peace treaty with the Palestinians in the hope that it will create economic prosperity and lead to security has failed, and said it was possible to establish security without resolving the underlying conflict.

He said the "poisoned" Palestinian society - as indicated by its education system and leadership - has shown that declarations of peaceful intentions are not sufficient to wipe out terrorism. Taking a swipe at the Oslo and Geneva accords, Netanyahu said, "We can go through all the capitals of Europe, it's not going to work."

Instead, Netanyahu advocated establishing security in part by "defense measures" such as the separation fence, saying the controversial sections of the fence can remain open for the time being. "Let's just get it done," he said, adding that no suicide bombers have come from the Gaza Strip, which is surrounded by a fence.

Netanyahu said the fence would help create conditions needed for a peace process. "The completion of the fence is important for peace. If any suicide bomber can just cross the line, then any potential peace process is held hostage to this suicide bomber," he said.

Peres and Netanyahu also discussed their views on other aspects of the country's future.

Economic prosperity, said Netanyahu, can be achieved by breaking the monopolies held by the unions, lowering the welfare rolls and taxes, and creating a better transit system - a transformation he said "nothing will stop."

Netanyahu also advocated a project to capitalize on goods that pass from Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal, saying, "We can get Asian goods to Europe at a cheaper cost."

He mentioned building a train route to connect the Red Sea with Haifa and Ashdod, and a route to connect the Red Sea with the northern Negev, although the specifics of the plan were not completely clear.

Netanyahu said he would be eager to see Jordan and the Palestinians participate in the project, which he said "could turn Israel and its immediate neighbors into a hub."

Peres had a different view of how the country's "new age" should look. He called on Israel to turn its focus to science and technology - particularly nanotechnology, the manipulation of materials at the atomic scale - with the help of U.S. Jewry.

"The only natural resource we possess is the one which is located in between our two ears," said Peres, saying Israel must embark on its fourth phase of accomplishment.

Israel has already succeeded in the ingathering of the exiles, agriculture and defense, said Peres. "But the wars of the past are over," he said. "We have to, with your participation, to make Israel a scientific land par excellence."

Peres outlined an era of nanotechnology, in which "new robots the size of a single hair" would counter cancer cells and nano-textiles would provide cool in the heat and warmth in the cold. He recommended Israel focus on the technology's use in medicine and water, and said some scientists here were already working on applications for prosthetics. "This is small research that fits in a small country," said Peres. "We have to go into it."

Israel has much to look forward to, he added. "We have a future that's more demanding, more provocative, more promising than the past."