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Private Confab Setting Israel’s Future

HERZLIYA, Israel — To its boosters, this seaside suburb north of Tel Aviv is Israel’s own West-chester County, a bedroom community for the affluent and a growing world center in its own right. To its detractors, that’s the problem. Their complaint tends to be quite specific: the expanding role of the Herzliya Conference.

The conference, an annual gathering of the rich and powerful, sponsored by Israel’s only privately run college, has become the most important yearly forum for the introduction of new concepts into Israel’s public discourse. Its admirers call it a combination Renaissance Weekend, Davos and Aspen Conference, where big ideas are exchanged and big deals get done. Critics say that’s just the point: It is rapidly replacing government, party and academia as the forum in which Israel’s essential public business is conducted, all in private.

Last year, Prime Minister Sharon used the Herzliya podium to deliver the most important speech of his career. After months of hints and leaks, he laid out his disengagement plan, touching off the political storm that has yet to subside. There was no equivalent buildup before this year’s conference, but it hardly mattered. Sharon’s 2003 Herzliya speech — following on his equally groundbreaking 2002 Herzliya speech, which ironically laid out his unshakeable principles for expanding future settlements — consolidated the standing of the conference, organized by the Interdisciplinary Center and the Lauder School of Government, as the place for the elite to be seen and heard.

The four days of this year’s conference might not have produced any disengagement-style bombshells, but they yielded a concise picture of Israel’s current state, as seen from on high. Way on high, that is; even Knesset members have to fight their way into the invitation-only affair. It also served as a sort of debate competition for senior leaders; writers and advisers spent weeks in advance polishing speeches by which their bosses will be measured for the year to come. None can afford a poor “Herzliya appearance.”

On the second day, Israel’s finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, delivered this year’s most closely watched speech. The past few weeks had been less than kind to Netanyahu: Sharon, whom he challenged on the disengagement plan, not only brought him to his knees on that issue, but also seemed on the verge of winning a high-stakes gambit and announcing a coalition with Labor and some religious parties, scotching Netanyahu’s hopes for a new coalition of the right. Sharon’s Likud-Labor coalition, if it works, could guarantee his survival as prime minister right up to the scheduled election date of November 2006, something that few politicians — Netanyahu conspicuously among them — were predicting just days ago.

Sharon wasn’t Netanyahu’s only tormentor. The finance minister also took a trouncing in the days before the conference from Amir Peretz, chairman of Israel’s Histadrut Labor Federation. In the 2005 national budget agreement, signed last week, Peretz triumphantly managed to repel Netanyahu’s most sweeping reforms and preserve a modicum of Israel’s once-vaunted safety net. Netanyahu, barely a month ago everybody’s shoo-in contender to the throne, came to Herzliya a humbled court follower.

However, if Netanyahu was feeling beaten, he showed no sign. Returning to his first love, he delivered a hard-line speech focusing mainly on foreign policy. He called for Israel to follow the same standards in treating the Palestinians that President Bush applies in Afghanistan and in Iraq. “We must not replace one dictator with another,” Netanyahu warned, “but demand democratization, free elections and transparency in finance.” And, true to Herzliya tradition, he threw down the gauntlet for his next electoral challenge, specifying his first-ever red lines in the upcoming border debate: “We will not go back to the 1967 borders, and the Clinton-Barak outline is completely out of the question. We will also never agree to divide Jerusalem.”

If Netanyahu spent the conference looking anxiously over his right shoulder, the conference’s other star, Lt.-General Moshe Ya’alon, the army chief of staff, was directing his gaze squarely at the press gallery. The days leading to the conference had been marked by a series of ugly clashes between the army chief and the Israeli media over news stories that cast his troops’ military ethics in a bad light. Ya’alon was caught in a squeeze; he had been roundly criticized in the ranks for agreeing last month, in order to quell a media outcry, to pull the elite Navy Seals out of the West Bank, even though the unit had been cleared on charges of cold-bloodedly killing a wounded terrorist. A day before the Herzliya Conference, Ya’alon appeared before the Cabinet and fired back at what he bitterly called the “lying media.” He was universally expected to escalate his counterattack the next day.

A few hours before Ya’alon’s speech, army-press tensions turned unexpectedly violent in an altercation between the army’s chief spokesperson, Brigadier General Ruth Yaron, and the country’s top television reporter, Ilana Dayan. Ya’alon had singled out Dayan’s program for blame over what he called “cooked-up tapes” that appeared to show a 13-year-old schoolgirl being killed by Israeli troops in Gaza. After Dayan, speaking on a Herzliya panel, suggested that the army simply isn’t accustomed to hearing the truth, Yaron charged the stage, furiously shouting: “You will stop at nothing! You prefer your image to the truth!” The incident subsided only after several minutes of face-to-face shouting before a stunned audience of hundreds of Israeli and world leaders.

And yet, when the chief of staff finally appeared, he was surprisingly mild mannered. Ya’alon spoke mainly of his personal worries over the “legitimacy of our actions” as an army and a nation, adding for good measure that “when the level of terror goes down, so does the legitimacy” of harsh Israeli counter-terror action — a paradox that constrains Israel’s ability to fight terrorism proactively.

Defense Minster Shaul Mofaz, hardly less dovish sounding than Ya’alon, dedicated his speech largely to laying out the army’s plans for facilitating the scheduled January 9 elections in the Palestinian Authority. He said the army would vacate all Palestinian cities a full day before Election Day, to guarantee voters, candidates and poll workers freedom of movement. He also said Israel is considering handing over security responsibility in Gaza to the Palestinians even before Israel’s planned withdrawal.

The conference also heard groundbreaking discussions of the State of Israel’s National Security Council, the progress of Iranian nuclear-weapons acquisition, and methods of measuring Israel’s internal strength and unity. But the dominant message, if there was one, was of an Israel far more secure in its day-to-day life but still uncertain as to how to proceed with its larger national security issues. Israel, it appears, has passed through its worst crisis and doesn’t quite know what to make of that fact.


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