Judging by the title, sparks were going to fly. A much-anticipated session at the second annual Israeli Presidential Conference, today was called “Jerusalem, Washington, US Jewry — Is the Honeymoon Over?”
The honeymoon is over, implied Elliott Abrams, former policy advisor to President George W. Bush, saying that he “had a wonderful honeymoon with Sallai,” referring to fellow panelist Sallai Meridor, former Israeli ambassador to America.
But while panelists agreed that relations are being put to the test and should become more intimate, in the main they were circumspect, and at points upbeat. Meridor, who was ambassador when Obama took office, said that whatever the clashes between Obama and Netanyahu, both leaders’ desire to make history will keep them on track. They both “see things in a very strategic historic manner,” he said.
I think that Netanyahu looks at his term as a historic term more than a personal term and I think that President Obama looks at his presidency as an historic phenomenon. I think that both individuals from my impression, beyond ideology, and both of them have a strong ideological basis, are strategic and are looking make major changes and if they are able and I hope they are to find the middle ground … the right thing for the world, for America, for Israel. I think this would take precedence for them over political considerations.
Stanley Greenberg, former advisor to President Bill Clinton, cited another reason why ties are not in danger. He pointed to the “continuity and depth of support” between the two allies, saying the “bottom line” is that the US-Israel alliance “is grounded in real things, values, deep support on both sides.”
But when, in a later session, participants heard from one of the most powerful figures in the Israeli government, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, there was indication that a major fault line is already opening up.
He spoke out against an internationally-backed draft plan that calls for Tehran to take uranium abroad for enrichment. He said that “what is required is a halt to enrichment in Iran, not just an export of the enriched material to build fuel rods.” To read more of Barak’s comments, click here, here, and here.
It’s a testament to the variety of the conference that these discussions were preceded by a very different type of gaze in to the future. Conference host Shimon Peres, President of Israel, was in conversation with Raymond Kurzweil, one of the world’s most famous inventors and futurists.
The two struck up a remarkable chemistry and oozed natural curiosity as they discussed what the future holds technology-wise. The great thing about the session was that Peres avoided the temptation to use it as an excuse to talk about Israel’s high-tech advances, and instead took a global view and deferred to Kurzweil.
The high point of the session was when Kurzweil drew gasps from Peres and the audience when he demonstrated a device he is working on that takes in speech through a microphone and gives a computer-generated translation through a speaker. He said that in the long term it will get the whole world talking without language barriers, and even become integrated in to cell phones.
Kurzweil asked the audience to take a step back when considering what technological advances may come about in the next decade, reminding people that just a decade ago use of internet search engines was relatively limited. Most exciting, he said, is the effect of technological and medical advances on life expectancy. With a track record of accurate predictions when it comes to technological advances, he said that in the coming decades he expects to see life expectancy increase by an average of one year with each year that passes. “If we can hang in there, we may get to experience a remarkable century ahead,” he said.
This led to some amusing banter. Moderator Dana Weiss, an Israeli TV journalist, asked what this meant for relationships, if marriage was “invented” when people live shorter lives. In responding to this point Kurzweil, a man who has invented a device to store pretty much every type of information, forgot how many years he has been married to his wife, who was in the audience. “That’s one thing you should either computerize or remember,” quipped Weiss.
Later in the day, at the closing ceremony, Peres focused again on the theme of what the future holds. He said:
We gathered here in Jerusalem, the city of Prophets, to daringly chart a new future. Here before us a meeting of intelligence, creativity, and vision is taking place. It is true that we face tough dilemmas. It is true that we face complex challenges. It is true that we face many crises. But it also true that we are equipped with enough intelligence and enough honesty. In order to confront the dilemmas. In order to tackle the challenges. In order to turn crisis to new opportunities. And to make sure that the greatest opportunities are not wasted. We are searching for a better tomorrow for Israel, for Jews, and for the world.