The United States wants calm restored in the south and condemns the rocket and missile fire from Gaza, while urging both sides to avoid harm to innocent civilians, a senior U.S. official told the Haaretz Israel Conference for Peace on Tuesday.
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“Israel has the right to defend itself,” said Philip Gordon, special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf.
Labor Party chairman and opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog addressed the escalation in the south, saying that if he were prime minister, he would be “meting out a harsh blow to Hamas and traveling to the Muqata,” the Palestinian president’s Ramallah headquarters, to speak with Mahmoud Abbas.
“The bad guys are launching missiles incessantly and don’t understand Israel’s desire for containment,” Herzog said. “It’s time to restore deterrence. In the end, we cannot accept missile barrages. Whoever looks at the Middle East from the outside understands that there are good guys and bad guys.”
Despite the persistent rocket fire that continued into last night, most of the speakers at the Tel Aviv conference focused on the peace process with the Palestinians, the failure of the last round of negotiations, the chances of reaching an agreement that will result in a Palestinian state and Israel’s security requirements in the framework of such an agreement.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who conducted the negotiations with the Palestinians for the Israeli government, called on the American administration to publicize the framework document that it had discussed with the Israeli and Palestinian teams and demand that both sides adopt it as a basis for resuming talks. The document included a series of principles for resolving the various core issues – borders, refugees, Jerusalem, security, and more.
Livni said that the Americans’ decision not to make the document public was an error, albeit a reversible one.
Publicizing the agreement, she said, “would have turned the basis for negotiating into something possible. Once it was on the table, everyone would have had to take a position. The public would have understood that this was something real, and whoever said yes or no would have been judged by the public. If we would come to elections, this would be the agenda on the table.”
Herzog, meanwhile, decried the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not exploit the years of relative quiet to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. He called on Livni and on Finance Minister Yair Lapid, the chairman of Yesh Atid, to leave the government, saying that remaining in Netanyahu’s coalition “they are not serving their voters, a vision of peace or even a vision that would lead to bold steps for peace.”
The most senior representative of the Israeli right at the conference was Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, whose address was repeatedly disrupted by heckling from the crowd. Bennett was forced to stop his speech several times after members of the audience booed him and called him “inciter” and “fascist,” saying that he and his party were responsible for the public atmosphere in Israel that led to the murder of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir.
Haaretz publisher Amos Shocken and Conference for Peace CEO Akiva Eldar came up on stage twice to try to stop the heckling and allow Bennett to speak. “This is the last place I thought that they would try to shut people up,” Bennett said.
When finally allowed to continue, Bennett sharply attacked the Israeli left, saying it “was forcing reality to fit its theory.” He added that the Israeli left had to rethink its approach, adding that he wanted peace, “but a true peace.”
When Bennett argued that the Jewish people and the State of Israel do not want war, one member of the audience called out, “you want it!” Bennett, visibly agitated, responded, “I fought in the first intifada, the second [intifada] and in the Second Lebanon War. No one here in this room will preach to me about the desire for peace. No one in Israel wants peace more than I do.”
After Bennett finished his address and was making his way out of the hall, the boos intensified and some of those who opposed him walked alongside him and shouted at him until he left the David Intercontinental Hotel. Bennett later claimed that someone had punched him in the back as he left the conference. The Habayit Hayehudi party later issued a statement condemning the heckling of Bennett, adding that it “was translated into physical violence.”
Haaretz denied that Bennett had been physically attacked.
“Unfortunately, minister Naftali Bennett, who was invited to address the Israel Conference on Peace, exploited the inappropriate conduct of one of the conference participants, who lightly pushed him, to claim that he was punched. This was an effort to make headlines by misleading the media,” the paper said in a statement. “A number of witnesses, including several journalists, confirmed that there was no punch, and that at the time Bennett was surrounded by bodyguards who did not react or apprehend anyone who was there.
“Haaretz invited Bennett and others on the right to the Conference on Peace, just as it invites them to write op-ed pieces, to maintain a dialogue that is open, democratic and pluralistic,” the statement continued. “We regret that Minister Bennett chose to exploit this invitation to slander conference participants and the Haaretz newspaper.”
Bennett’s office later criticized Haaretz’s response, saying, “From the Haaretz newspaper in particular we would have expected a condemnation of the violence and not to support someone who attacks an Israeli minister. Verbal tricks do no honor to the newspaper or its readers.”
Opening the conference was President Shimon Peres, who, in an interview with journalist Ari Shavit, praised the PA’s Abbas for his courage.
“Every serious person must admit that [Abbas] surprised us,” Peres said. “To appear in Saudi Arabia, denounce the murderers [of the three Jewish teens kidnapped last month] and to call for peace and to halt terror, to say, ‘I’m from Safed, and I won’t return to Safed.’ The man risked and is risking his life for peace. He is absolutely a partner for peace; I don’t see anyone better than him.”