Herzliya, Israel — When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came up with his disengagement plan for Gaza last year, he chose to announce it at the Herzliya Conference on Israeli National Strength and Security, a unique annual gathering of the country’s top political, security, economic and social leaders.Why not in the Knesset?“Because he wanted to speak to his peers, people he respects, and he wanted to get the most media attention,” explained a former official in the prime minister’s office.In its first five years, the Herzliya Conference has become that platform — the place to be and to be seen among the national elite, and the stage for policymakers to propose bold new ideas.
So when Sharon speaks to the 1,500 participants at the culmination of the four-day conference in this upscale resort area on the Mediterranean, just north of Tel Aviv, he is sure to make headlines again, as have other top officials here this week.On Monday, Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz announced the army’s plan to withdraw from Palestinian cities before the Jan. 9 elections for a new president. Later in the day, Israel Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Moshe Yaalon told the conference that the West must be prepared to take military action against Iran if diplomatic efforts to curb its nuclear plans fail.
The next day, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extolled the praises of the Bush Doctrine, which calls for the democratization of the Arab world. Tommy Lapid, the former deputy prime minister, warned that if Israel does not address the issues of inequality and resentment among its Israeli Arab population, within a decade the country could face violent riots that would make the current intifada “look like child’s play.”
And Shimon Peres, whose Labor Party appears poised to join the Sharon government, said Labor was willing to give up seeking even one of the five top cabinet posts because delaying the disengagement from Gaza would be “a sin” to the Israeli people.Almost half the news stories in the Jerusalem Post on Wednesday morning were based on reports and declarations made here, and that was just from the first two days of a conference that has become the most prestigious of its kind.How did that happen?
The Herzliya Conference is the brainchild of Uzi Arad, a highly respected former director of the Mossad and founding head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC, the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, which sponsors the conference. With his rare combination of intellectual and entrepreneurial skills, world-class contacts and graceful charm, Arad has established the conference as the forum for setting the national agenda for Israeli policymakers.Participation is by invitation only, and each year more Israeli and diaspora leaders ask to be included. In addition to being a prime setting for high-powered networking, the conference has both academic and practical components. Position papers are prepared in advance of the conference, and summaries and analyses are published afterward.“We measure the impact by seeing which findings and recommendations take root,” Arad told The Jewish Week during a rare break from presiding over sessions. “We want to trigger action, inform the public debate or create a process for more discussion.”
Even in this cantankerous society, the conference is widely regarded as a major success in bringing together serious people to talk about serious issues without a particular political slant. Unlike other large conferences, it has no concurrent sessions. There is only one meeting room, and the program goes from 8 a.m. to almost 8 p.m. with one panel after another. It’s exhaustive but highly focused.Issues are framed around Israeli national security, though the definition has broadened over the years to include the media, diaspora Jewry, and this year, poverty and social welfare, thanks in large part to major sponsorship from the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, its president, said he pushed to have the issue of civic responsibility added to the agenda.One seemingly critical area affecting national security that was not addressed directly was religion, either the threat of Islamic fundamentalism or the place of Judaism in Israeli society.Based on key topics discussed here this week, the national agenda in the coming year will focus on devising options to prevent or confront a nuclear-armed Iran, seeking new ways to solidify Israel’s strong strategic relationship with the United States, and coming up with fresh ideas for resolving the Palestinian conflict at a time that virtually everyone described as hopeful in the aftermath of Yasir Arafat’s death and the re-election of President Bush. (Israel clearly would be a red state were it part of the U.S.).
Eli Levite, a director of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, stressed the “very dangerous situation” in the world today where Iran’s efforts to gain nuclear arms could become the tipping point for many other countries to seek to do the same. He and other panelists spoke of a fear of the collapse of world order in a coming age of “nuclear anarchy,” and stressed the need for strategies to deal with these scenarios.The U.S.-Israel relationship, while stronger than ever, should not be taken for granted, experts agreed.Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, emphasized the need for Jewish unity in facing external challenges.
He and Amnon Rubenstein, a law professor at IDC, agreed that a formal defense treaty between Israel and the U.S. might be more problematic than beneficial, at least at this time. But Rubenstein suggested an alliance, preferably with NATO, would include the U.S., Israel and a future Palestinian state that makes peace with Israel, as well as other states in the region that would do the same.Several academics offered reports showing that Israeli society is bouncing back from the depths of the four-year suicide war, not only economically but psychologically. The majority of Israelis are proud of their country, willing to make sacrifices and optimistic about the future, according to Gabi Ben-Dor, a professor of political science at the University of Haifa.
He noted that there is strong trust in the army and in the Supreme Court, and very little confidence in public officials.Ben-Dor and other speakers spoke of the intifada primarily in the past tense as a battle that has been won, even though five Israeli soldiers were killed in a tunnel bombing at a Gaza post on the eve of the conference.
A lively, sometimes hostile session on the media and government influence offered a telling view into Israeli society as broadcast and print journalists sparred with Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose ministry oversees the communications field. At issue was whether competition among television stations is good or bad for the public, the role of government regulations in the media and whether competition for ratings had reduced television news to entertainment.
More important, the give-and-take between a government official and journalists was more blunt and personal than anything seen in America, reflecting the aggressive nature of the Israeli media, and the openness of Israeli society and its small size, where everyone knows everyone else.Perhaps typifying the Israeli media’s role here, Ilana Dayan, an anchor for Channel 2, asserted that “the essence of our existence is to shock the public, effect public discourse and make the people think.”As for how Israel presents its case to the world, Frank Luntz, an American research expert, stressed the importance of language in hasbara, or advocacy.
“Never use the word ‘incitement,’ ” he told the group, “because Americans don’t understand it.” He urged the use of the phrase “culture of hatred” instead, and said a “voluntary” disengagement from Gaza is far preferable to a “unilateral” one.“You are about to do what the world has been demanding you do for 20 years,” he told the Israelis, “and they still hate you.”