Notes from the Herzliya Conference

Do you really want to go inside?” a friend asked me at the entrance to the main hall of the Herzliya Conference, a global policy conference. “You know,” he said, “it’s Tzipi Livni speaking” — implying that there’s no point in wasting one’s time on her.

Four years ago, Livni was a legitimate contender for the job of prime minister, and since four weeks ago, the first building block of the new Netanyahu coalition and the appointed new engine of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Yet she was not even a must-hear speaker at the conference. I went inside anyway: Things have changed for the worse for Livni, but they can just as easily change back for the better.

The afternoon was dedicated to the two-state solution, one of only “two options,” if we are to believe Livni — two states for two people or one state for no people. Obviously, some of Livni’s future coalition partners have more creative imaginations and can think about other options.

Livni said some things I barely understand, such as “The problem with Turkey needs to be solved.” How? By whom? Her asserting this might create the impression (intentionally or not) that Israel isn’t trying hard enough to amend the relationship. If that’s the case, I’d like to hear why Israel is at fault here. If not, Livni should better formulate her message.

Enough about Livni, though. She was followed by a panel of Middle East experts on the same topic, including Robert M. Danin from the Council on Foreign Relations, Michael Herzog from the Washington Institute, Hebrew University political science professor Shlomo Avineri, journalist Yoaz Hendel, retired Maj. Gen. Nati Sharoni and Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria — smart people, some of them also my friends.

Barak Ravid of Haaretz moderated. He began by joking that getting the man from Haaretz to moderate such panel is a cliché, and then moved on to make it a cliché by speaking at length about his dislike of the occupation. It was not an easy panel to moderate, not an easy one to follow. Seriously, an afternoon discussion about the viability of the two-state solution? Spending an afternoon listening to more talk of “bottom up,” “delegitimazation,” “sustainability,” “direct talks,” “American engagement,” “incremental steps,” “final status”? When the beach is so close and the temperature is so high?

Avineri, although supportive of the two-state solution, explained why peace is untenable at the moment. As a pragmatic way of moving forward, he suggested to move slowly, manage the conflict, agree on small things — not as substitute to a final status agreement, but rather as a step toward it. If there was an agreement among the panelists, it was about the need to avoid grandiosity and move slowly. If there was disagreement, it was about whether such a move would eventually lead to a “two-state” situation.

Herzog was adamant: Settlements haven’t yet brought us to a “point of no return.” That’s one myth worth debunking, and Sharoni later joined Herzog in doing so, armed with a short film in which maps and stats drove home the point. Settlements surely would not make it easier to achieve peace, but most of the settlers are in blocs, and most of the territory is still free of permanent Israeli presence.

So, when will the “window of opportunity” close? No one knows, Herzog said. And I would add: There will be no official announcement or a ceremony marking the grand closing of the window. (And windows can be closed and then reopened.)

Hendel stole the show by doing something simple: The peace seekers’ club speaks too much English and too little Arabic and Hebrew. Since the Herzliya conference takes place in Israel, Hendel chose to speak in Hebrew. He was the first panelist to speak Hebrew (Sharoni, following him, also spoke Hebrew; Dayan, who spoke last, felt a need to explain why he’d rather speak English — to let the guests from abroad hear a settler uninterrupted by translation). Speaking Hebrew in this setting isn’t about sending a nationalistic message, it is about reminding the participants and the audience that Israelis will be the ones making decisions and living with the consequences, and they should be the ones convinced that a two-state solution is in their best interest. (Hendel doesn’t think the solution is currently attainable.)

So, is the two-state solution over? A recent headline in The New Republic — “The End of the Two-State Solution” (for an article by Ben Birnbaum) — implied that it is. But it’s not. What works as a headline for a panel or for a journalistic report doesn’t always work in reality. In fact, it doesn’t even work for Birnbaum. Beneath the dramatic headline, all he claims in his worthy and interesting piece is that currently “the essential conditions for peace remain” and that “by the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, however, every one of these circumstances could vanish — and if that happens, the two-state solution will vanish along with them.”

So it hasn’t yet vanished: “If” certain things happen, then “by the end of Obama’s presidency,” namely in four years or so, “circumstances could” make the solution vanish.

The fact of the matter is that it is totally irrelevant whether or not the “solution” is going to vanish in two years or four years or 11, if it can’t be implemented. And the panel didn’t seem to be convinced that implementation is near.