Jerusalem — “Tomorrow” was the theme of this year’s Israeli Presidential Conference, a three-day program that attracted more than 4,000 guests from around the world here this past week. But there was an air of nostalgia on the opening evening when host Shimon Peres, the 88-year-old president of Israel, bestowed the Presidential Award of Distinction on Henry Kissinger, 89, praising the former U.S. secretary of state as “a great statesman and a great Jew” for statecraft performed in the 1970s.
As several thousand people stood to give the two elder statesmen a warm and prolonged ovation, I couldn’t help but wonder if historical amnesia had seeped into the Jerusalem Conference Center. For here was Peres, once the most mocked and mistrusted of his country’s politicians and now Israel’s most popular leader, putting a ceremonial medal around the neck of the man many felt bent over backwards to favor the Arab side in brokering Mideast peace deals, who callously sought to dissuade President Richard Nixon from supporting the cause of Soviet Jewry, and who was married in a church.
“A great statesman and a great Jew?”
Welcome to the fourth annual installment of the Jewish version of the Davos Economic Forum, a buzz-worthy place to be and to be seen — and best enjoyed if you take in the overall energy of the experience rather than scrutinize the details of comments like the one above, or of Peres’ advice, offered up at the end of a fascinating session on learning from mistakes: “Close a little bit your eyes,” he said in warning against striving for perfection, be it in diplomacy or in one’s personal life.
“You cannot make love or peace with open eyes.”
Whether such charming aphorisms fully make sense or not — it could be argued that Peres made peace with his eyes closed — they sound great, and no one is better than Peres at coming up with them. Or at attracting an international range of diplomats, politicians, entrepreneurs, academics, technology innovators and diaspora Jewish community leaders to a conference based on his aggressively optimistic view of the future.
So best not to dwell on how the “select” list of thousands of invitees were chosen, including 1,800 people from outside of Israel. And the same goes for thinking too deeply about the dozens of session topics and more than 200 speakers, or the lasting impact of the $2.7 million event, funded with corporate and private dollars.
Reading the program schedule, one could see that panels tended to include not only several experts in a given field but at least one major philanthropist or celebrity (or both) who had little of substance to add.
As for practical value, at the end of one of several two-hour “closed roundtables” — no audience invited — the moderator informed the dozen of us charged with determining the greatest threats to, and solutions for, world Jewry that the creative results of a similar session at last year’s event were duly transcribed and submitted to the conference planners, and not heard from since.
Having said all that, I had a fine time. I found the conference a great opportunity to hear some very thoughtful people opine on various topics, and to network (the more dignified term for “shmooze”) in the lobby and halls.
I came away admiring Peres for his genius in resurrecting his career and image at this late stage through his honorific position as president of Israel, becoming the one Israeli leader that other heads of state around the world admire. (Only the week before he received the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama at the White House.) The program itself consisted of lectures, panels, workshops and roundtables on subjects ranging from Mideast politics to global economics to advances in science and technology.
There were world leaders like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, high-tech business stars like Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Israel’s Yossi Vardi, Mideast experts like Dennis Ross, thought leaders like Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman (economics) and New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, and other big-name attractions sure to draw a crowd, from Zionist critic Peter Beinart to 84-year-old sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose session on “The Future of Sex” had to be moved to the biggest hall in the center and was attended by young people who greeted her like a rock star.
Notably missing were haredim, though concern about their growing numbers and political clout, here and in Israel, were discussed at various sessions.
Also missing was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who suffered a leg injury playing soccer last week, and offered video greetings to the conference participants.
One tends to equate the future with progress, but any number of speakers at this future-themed conference noted that the Mideast is an increasingly dangerous region, with Egypt and Syria undergoing different forms of national chaos, and Iran on the cusp of achieving nuclear arms, threatening Israeli society most directly but setting off waves of alarm throughout the region.
At an impressive session called “Strategic Look At Tomorrow,” Gabi Ashkenazi, former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and one of four panelists, noted the obvious concerns to Israel but pointed out that whoever leads Egypt will have to focus on providing “bread for 90 million people every day,” and said if Syrian President Basher Assad falls, Iran and Hezbollah could be weakened.
Mideast policy veteran Dennis Ross asserted the new Egyptian government will need outside help, and in order to get it from the United States, it will have to “play by the rules,” including respecting its peace treaty with Israel.
On Iran, he said that in the end, “there is no military answer” to the nuclear program because even if the program is set back by military strikes, it won’t be ended.
“Think about the aftermath” of any possible attack, he said, which must include diplomacy to succeed.
And while so much attention is being paid to Egypt, Syria and Iran, the Palestinian issue “is not going away,” according to Ross, who said there is a “fundamental disbelief on both sides that the other side is committed to a two-state solution.”
He opposes unilateral moves, saying they never work as planned.
To change the current dynamic, he called on each side to initiate a series of steps to indicate its belief in a two-state solution. For Israel that would include compensating settlers who voluntarily move inside the Green Line and allowing Palestinians more economic and security access in key areas.
Similarly, he said the Palestinian Authority must include Israel on its maps, talk about two states for two peoples and recognize the Jewish historical connection to the land.
Wieseltier of The New Republic criticized the Israeli government for a “complete lack of imagination” in dealing with the Palestinian conflict. Referring to Netanyahu’s now controlling 94 seats in the Knesset, he worried aloud that “a democracy without an opposition is not a healthy democracy.” He said “passivity is bad for people and states” and called on the Israeli government to focus on developing relationships with the Arab people, not just their leaders.
Perhaps most sobering was the assessment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch feminist, now living in the United States, whose outspoken criticism of her native Muslim culture provoked death threats.
She said it will take at least a generation for Muslims to change their core beliefs in absolute authority, in the notion that compromise is shameful and spells defeat, and that all answers are found in the Koran.
A Tame Beinart
Many in the large crowd attending a panel that included Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman and Peter Beinart, author of “The Crisis of Zionism,” were expecting some rhetorical fireworks. They probably left disappointed because Beinart, whose presence at the conference some questioned because of his harsh views on Israeli policy, offered a far more tame critique than heard on his U.S. speaking tour. And his arguments were more nuanced than usual.
Discussing the topic of world Jewry’s expectations from Israel, he followed Foxman, who said his support for Israel was unconditional and, while not mentioning Beinart by name, asserted that his own Zionism was not in crisis.
Beinart said Zionism is going through “a slow decline” that he called “tragic.” But he made a point of linking young people’s distancing from Israel to their distancing from Judaism, and called for a stronger Jewish educational system. He also narrowed his description of those young Jews who he says are deeply disappointed with Israel’s policies regarding the Arabs. He was referring to a small elite group of non-Orthodox intellectuals, made up of rabbinical students, Jewish renewal adherents, journalists and academics, he said.
Beinart, lacking the passionate, borderline-aggressive tone displayed in his U.S. presentations, expressed worry that this frustration among the young elites could lead them to advocate for a binational state.
Wieseltier, who called American Jews “the spoiled brats of world Jewry,” said he believes conditional love for Israel is the highest form of love because it makes demands on both parties.
In the end, there were a number of thoughtful sessions at the conference and some clunkers. One hopes it will all result in more business — and good vibes — generated for Israel. If that happens, credit goes to Shimon Peres, whose utopian visions of “The New Middle East” — the title of his 1993 book — seem untainted by the violence that destroyed the Oslo peace accords in the ensuing years.
At the session on learning from mistakes, Peres cautioned not to mix the past and the future. “The past is dead and can’t be changed,” he said. “Concentrate all efforts on the future.”
Citing last week’s scathing report by the Israeli state comptroller about government agencies’ blame for the 2010 Carmel fire, Peres said that instead of commissions to investigate mistakes, “make them about success and learn from them. Let the past rest quietly.”
After restoring his own image, he’s the expert on jettisoning the past.