On a sunny Sunday afternoon in late April, Israel put its raucous, divided political culture on full exhibition in New York for a day — and New York did not like what it saw.
The occasion was the first-ever Jerusalem Post Conference, an all-day public seminar on Israeli policy, held on April 29 at Manhattan’s Marriott Times Square Hotel. The star-studded event brought together some two dozen Israelis from the worlds of government, defense, philanthropy and journalism, along with a handful of American Jewish activists, and put them on a stage before a paying audience of 1,200 for a day of speeches and panel discussions.
Though billed in advance as a “hugely important” exploration of “the major issues facing the Jewish people,” the conference generated headlines in Israel and around the world mostly for its showcasing of Israeli politics as usual: a parade of political attacks, grandstanding, name-calling and shouting matches, punctuated by repeated catcalling from the audience and occasional bursts of reasoned analysis.
Among its notable points were a former Israeli prime minister attacking the incumbent prime minister, a Jerusalem Post editor attacking the president of the United States to loud cheers from many in the audience and an Israeli cabinet minister and a former Mossad intelligence director accusing each other of lying and sabotage.
An emotional climax came in the late morning, when famed Harvard University legal scholar Alan Dershowitz came to the stage and begged the assembled to tone down their rhetoric. “The first rule” in gatherings like this, he said, is “do not ever, ever boo a president of the United States” when “speaking on behalf of the state of Israel.” The audience of mostly American Jews greeted his plea with a mixture of polite applause and derisive boos.
Dershowitz went on to offer what he called “rule number two: Please, Israelis, do not bring your domestic political battles to any forum here.” Rather, he urged, “speak in a united fashion” and “present the consensus case.” This point won spirited audience applause and was echoed later in the day by another leading Diaspora commentator, Australian-Israeli businessman Isi Leibler.
But as one Israeli after another rose to speak, it became clear that the plea was futile, for the simple reason that there is no Israeli consensus to present.
The main division among conference speakers pitted Israeli government officials, led by Environmental Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, against three former generals: former Mossad director (and reserve major general) Meir Dagan, former army chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former air force commander Elyezer Shkedy. The government officials were backed by a conservative journalist, Jerusalem Post Deputy Managing Editor Caroline Glick, while the generals were joined by the conservative-turned-liberal former prime minister Ehud Olmert. It was Glick’s attack on President Obama, to catcalls and standing ovations from the audience, that prompted Dershowitz’s plea for moderation.
The most heated disagreements between the two sides concerned Israeli policy toward Iran and the Palestinians — in one case, whether Israel should consider a solo military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, as the government officials believed and the generals did not; in the other case, whether peace is achievable in the near term with the current Palestinian leadership, which Olmert and Dagan believed and the government officials furiously rejected.
The debate echoes a steadily worsening public rift in Israel between Netanyahu and a growing list of former defense and intelligence chiefs over those two issues. The latest to turn against the prime minister is former Shin Bet domestic security director Yuval Diskin, who caused a furor on April 27 with a speech denouncing Netanyahu’s policies and questioning his fitness to lead.