Herzliya, Israel — When I asked my taxi driver, on the way to the opening session of the annual Herzliya Conference on Sunday, who he would vote for for prime minister today, he answered without hesitation: "Begin."
It’s true that even Menachem Begin’s political enemies considered the country’s first Likud prime minister to be a man of deep integrity who always said what he believed — a characteristic not readily found among politicians these days.
But Begin died in 1992.
To say that Israelis are frustrated by and cynical about current government leaders and the leading political candidates is an understatement. In fact, an annual survey on public attitudes, announced at the first session of the conference — a four-day symposium on national security, economy, and social issues often described as Israel’s Davos (see sidebar) — found that while Israelis remain confident in the military, despite the trauma of the 2006 Lebanon war — the first Israeli war that did not result in a clear military victory for the Jewish state — there has been "an erosion of trust" in the government, according to Gabriel Ben-Dov, head of the school of political science at Haifa University. (The most dramatic plunge, though, was in public trust for the Supreme Court, which used to be held in higher esteem than military generals but is seen by many as having usurped the role of the Knesset in making law.)
If, as Israeli President Shimon Peres told the program participants, Israelis are always "divided between fear and hope," this year’s conference opened at a moment when fear is ascendant, as reflected in three of the key issues discussed: Iran and its potential nuclear threat after the release of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report in Washington that appears to undermine efforts to halt Tehran; a post-Annapolis assessment of the prospects for Mideast peace when little progress has been made; and the volatile domestic political situation in Israel on the eve of the final Winograd Commission report assessing the role and responsibility of the Olmert government during the Lebanon war.
Due out Jan. 30, the report is expected to deal harshly with the government and could lead to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political downfall, though he has stated publicly that no matter what the report says, he will not resign.
Will Olmert Fall?
At one of the most highly charged sessions, on the Winograd report, Olmert’s attitude was sharply criticized as arrogant, undemocratic and a sign of "a loss of moral authority" on the prime minister’s part by Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, a former national security adviser and founding chair of the Tafnit political party. He and another panelist, Gideon Sa’ar, a member of Knesset from Likud, insisted that none of the military objectives of the war were achieved — defeating Hezbollah, stopping the missile attacks on Israel, and rescuing the kidnapped soldiers — and that Olmert must bear the blame and step down.
Another panelist, former minister of justice and of finance, Dan Meridor, a friend of Olmert’s, did not mention the prime minister by name but said that "there are people who are capable of being elected but not of making decisions." It seemed clear he was part of the chorus of those castigating Olmert for a failure of leadership.
Many believe that if the Winograd report concludes that the final battle of the war, in which 33 Israeli soldiers were killed in a ground offensive, was motivated by political bravado rather than military objectives, Olmert will not be able to stay in office longer than a few months.
But Meir Nitzan, the Kadima Council chair and mayor of Rishon Letzion, could not contain himself on hearing Olmert castigated so severely. In a sign of high drama not uncommon in Israeli conferences, he rose from his seat in the audience of about 400 and strode to the podium, insisting on the right to speak, which he did, defending Olmert and insisting the war was not lost. He said the last battle of the war was legitimate in seeking to move the enemy back before the cease-fire.
Dayan countered that Mideast wars must be won by Israel decisively, "not on points," but the crowd appeared most moved by an army reservist in the audience who, during the question-and-answer session, asked: "What if I told my soldiers on the night before a battle, ‘no matter what happens, it’s not my responsibility,’ how would they feel?" He said that even though Israel’s leadership has not shown accountability, he will continue to serve his country.
His moving statement was consistent with another report released at the conference that found patriotism among Israelis remains high, despite the country’s many problems, and that more Israelis were willing to fight than call themselves patriots.
What Peace Process?
The tone of the panel discussion on prospects for "Negotiating the Final Status Agreement" between Israel and the Palestinians was set by former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, who said Israel’s realistic goal should not be peace anytime soon, since that is impossible, but rather to manage the conflict in ways that would encourage radical Palestinian reform.
Calling for a "new paradigm" in place of the two-state solution, he asserted that despite the U.S. efforts to push for final-status talks now, the situation remains highly asymmetrical, with Israel willing to recognize a Palestinian state and make territorial and other compromises while the Palestinians want all of the land and still refuse to recognize a Jewish state or stop the terror, which is step one toward peace.
He received loud applause for his talk, which concluded that no progress can be made until the Palestinians first recognize the Jewish state and reform their society, from instituting the rule of law to revamping an education system that dehumanizes Jews.
Former American Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer, now a professor at Princeton University, noted at the outset of his remarks that "this conference … is ready to throw out the peace process before trying it," and said the role of policy makers is "to take a situation and try to make it work."
He said his forthcoming book will analyze what went wrong with previous U.S. efforts, including the fact that Washington failed to deal with the asymmetrical issues Ya’alon spoke of, and what lessons can be learned.
His assessment was that the peace process needs monitoring that will hold the two sides accountable, which was not implemented in the past, but is in place now. "What needs to be new," he said, "is a commitment to accomplish" the necessary changes, like a Palestinian halt to terror and an Israeli willingness to enforce its own laws by removing settlement outposts.
In the end, Kurtzer said, the success or failure of the peace efforts is in the hands of the Palestinians and Israelis.
If there is one thing Israeli officials and experts agree on — a rarity in this country — it is that the recent NIE report in Washington, which found that Iran suspended efforts toward producing nuclear weapons in 2003, is dangerously flawed and a serious blow to preventing Tehran from developing such weapons.
The conference devoted three consecutive sessions to the threat; a crowd favorite was former American Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, whose blunt assessment was that the U.S. no longer has a policy on dealing with the Iranian threat and will be "a bystander." He seemed to encourage Israeli action before it is too late.
Aaron Abramovitch, director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asserted that 2008 "is a critical year" in the effort to stop the regime in Iran, outlining the threat it represents not only to Israel, but to the region and the West as a sponsor of world terror. He said UN sanctions have not stopped Iran’s march toward producing nuclear weapons and that the U.S. and Europe must increase diplomatic efforts.
The message of the children’s story, "Little Red Riding Hood," should be taken to heart by the Western world, according to Yuval Steinitz, a member of the Knesset committees on foreign affairs and defense. Calling the NIE report "the most bizarre and flawed I’ve ever read," he said the willful ignorance of Little Red Riding Hood to realize that it was a wolf, not her grandmother, she was encountering led to her violent end. And Steinitz asserted that the West ignores at its own peril the facts that Iran is producing all the elements needed for nuclear weapons, including missiles to carry them.
"Are they going to grow pistachios in those reactors?" he asked.
Perhaps the most telling indication of Israel’s plans regarding Iran came from Defense Minister Ehud Barak, not in what he said but in what he didn’t, in his address to the conference. "Words do not stop missiles," he said. "Leaders like to talk, but on this topic it is better not to say much.
Of Iran developing nuclear weapons, he asserted simply: "We won’t let it happen."
Ever since former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his plans for the Gaza disengagement at the third Herzliya Conference in December 2003, the event has become Israel’s premier annual security and economic symposium — the place to be and be seen — with more than 500 invited government and military leaders, academics, dignitaries and guests from the U.S., Europe, China and other countries, in addition to Israel.
Each year Israel’s prime minister delivers a major address at the close of the conference in what has become the equivalent of the country’s State of the Union address. (Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was scheduled to speak at dinner Wednesday night, after press time.)
Sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, a leading private university, the conference is planned and run seemingly single-handedly by its chair, Uzi Arad, a no-nonsense former director of intelligence of the Mossad. In trying to keep to the conference’s long and tight schedule, he has instituted a prominently displayed stop-clock that counts down each speaker’s allotted time. When it gets to zero, it reads: "Your Time Is Over!" (Most speakers went at least a few minutes over, though.)
The sessions run from early in the morning until late at night, including major talks at lunch and dinner, and they feature frontal presentations, with little opportunity for cross-discussion among panelists.
And perhaps reflecting Arad’s politics — he is aligned with and has served in the government of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu — and that of some of the conference’s leading sponsors, the program has a decidedly right-of-center orientation, with speakers from think-tanks like the Manhattan Institute, the Hudson Institute and others known for their conservative views. For many at this conference, the peace process is a non-starter and bombing Iran is an option of choice.
Still, the roster of speakers and attendees is impressive, including virtually all of the leading figures in the Israeli government and military, representatives of NATO, and European governments. Among the Americans who addressed the conference were former American Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz, State Department deputy director of policy planning Kori Schake, and Samantha Ravich, deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.