Prime minister hopefuls make pitch to U.S. Jewish leaders

jerusalem | Benjamin Netanyahu linked himself to Barack Obama and said he is Israel’s candidate of change in a speech he delivered this week to American Jewish leaders meeting in Israel.

In what amounted to an American-style stump speech, the Likud leader said he met with Obama several times. Even his Web site bears close resemblance to Obama’s.

Netanyahu, who is a front-runner in the February election for prime minister, offered a multi-pronged approach for saving Israel economically and making peace with its Arab neighbors during a plenary session Nov. 19 at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor also spoke before federation leaders, telling them why they thought they were better candidates for prime minister.

“We are living in tough times in a tough neighborhood,” Barak said in his plenary address Nov . 17. “For Israel to survive in this corner of the world means to stand firm, open-eyed, ready to stretch its hand, preferably the left hand, to find — to open any door, any window to try to find a way to make peace.”

Barak, like Netanyahu a former prime minister, continued, “At the same time, we should have the other hand, the right hand, with the pointing finger close to the trigger, ready to pull it whenever it’s necessary. That’s the situation that dominates our lives.”

Livni, Ehud Olmert’s successor as Kadima Party leader, told the delegates Nov. 19, “We need not to forget the ultimate goal of the State of Israel. We need to keep the nature of the State of Israel, the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish state because this is the raison d’etre of the State of Israel.”

Much of Livni’s speech was directed at the international community. She said countries around the world must do more to confront anti-Semitism, support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and confront Iran. Defending the pace of the negotiations she has led with the Palestinians, Livni said she needs more time to reach a final-status deal — one of her central pitches in the race for prime minister.

Netanyahu, in a 40-minute address that ran more than twice the length of those of his rivals, cast himself as Israel’s economic savior returned. He heralded his successes as Israel’s finance minister from 2003 to 2005 and championed an economy-based approach to mitigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He told the crowd, made up of several thousand lay and professional leaders of the Jewish federation system, that his economic policies — including lowering taxes and reducing the welfare rolls — when he served as finance minister moved Israel away from “virtual collapse” in 2003 to a booming economy.

Now with the global economy collapsing, Netanyahu said Israel could capitalize on the declining world market by dropping taxes even further to inspire foreign investors. As a small country, Israel would “only need a trickle” of potential wealth from the global community to significantly improve its position, he said.

On the peace front, Netanyahu said he favors pursuing achievable incremental agreements rather than chasing an elusive final-status deal, and wants to focus on bolstering the “moderate parts of the Palestinian economy” to foster the conditions for political agreement.

“Peace and security require a new direction, and an economic challenge that requires reinvigoration, and we intend to do both,” said Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister from June 1996 to July 1999.

“Any change involves overcoming vested interests. There are always champions of the status quo. There are always the naysayers,” he said. “You have to show that consistency of vision and purpose that can change the lives of Israelis, the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.”

The Likud leader did not, however, outline what a political agreement with the Palestinians would look like, nor did he mention pursuing a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu was polished and confident, and he used his perfect English to make his policy proposals clear — ranging from lowering taxes to fighting organized crime. Livni, who stands a far better chance than Barak, was more emotional, short on detail and a bit more tongue-tied. She speaks English well but with a heavy Israeli accent. Barak, a former Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff who also speaks with a Hebrew accent, came off sounding like he did in his old job as an army general.

Barak, whose Labor Party is expected to suffer heavy losses in the elections, did not get the same warm reception that Netanyahu and Livni received.