Fireworks erupted at Israel’s most prestigious annual security conference on Wednesday when two former security advisers to Benjamin Netanyahu clashed over the prime minister’s stewardship of the nation’s affairs.
The rumpus broke out during a speech at the annual Herzliya Conference by Uzi Arad, longtime national security adviser to Netanyahu, former director of Israel’s national security council, and founder of thel Herzliya Conference. Arad was billed as speaking on “Strategic Challenges for Israel.” Instead of addressing military affairs, however, he delivered a slashing, emotionally charged attack on Netanyahu’s management of the nation’s affairs.
Without mentioning the prime minister by name, Arad catalogued a long list of areas in which he said Israel was weak and getting weaker. Relying on rankings from the OECD and other international bodies, Arad named elementary and higher education, health care, government cronyism, investor friendliness and foreign policy — particularly Israel’s poor relations under Netanyahu with Its most important ally, Washington.. Negative results Arad pointed to included public cynicism, a new generation underprepared to take over Israel’s high tech industries, difficult social divisions and growing isolation on the international stage.
“These are Israel’s strategic challenges,” Arad said, speaking in Hebrew. “If we fix our problems we can overcome any threat. But if we continue to be our own worst enemy, we face trouble.”
Following Arad on the conference program was Dore Gold, a longtime Netanyahu foreign policy adviser, former ambassador to the United Nations and currently director-general of the Foreign Ministry. Gold was scheduled to speak on “Iran versus Regional Alliances and Coalitions.” Coming right after Arad, however, he began by saying he would devote a few minutes to clearing the record.
“There’s a nasty rumor that Israel has no foreign policy, that it is more isolated than ever,” Gold said in English, with a sarcastic smile.
The promised few minutes turned into half or more of his allotted time. Gold described foreign policy successes. He acknowledged that Israel had had “a huge argument” with the United States, its most important ally, over the Iran nuclear agreement. “Now we have to get beyond that,” he said, and proceeded to review Israel’s objections to the agreement.
On a positive note, he cited improved ties with African and Asian nations and clandestine cooperation with Arab nations he declined to name.
“Rather than run and tell your friends, we have to be patient and build relationships,” Gold said.
He did disclose, however, that Netanyahu would be visiting four African nations next month, the first Israeli prime minister in 20 years to be welcomed on the continent.
Disagreements and conflicting analyses are common at the Herzliya Conference, but rarely are participants treated to a critique of the ruling government as harsh as Arad’s from a speaker who’s not an opposition politician.
Arad is one of a lengthy list of former senior Netanyahu aides who have gone on become his political enemies. Others include education minster Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu bureau chief who went on to form a rival political party; and newly appointed defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, if ony were going to ve there.
There were numerous other displays of fury at Netanyahu’s management during the course of the conference. One of the most dramatic was a speech by legal scholar and former education minister Amnon Rubinstein on what he called threats to Israeli democracy. Speaking in uncharacteristically anguished tones, the usually mild mannered Rubinstein, dean of the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, which sponsors the Herzliya Conference, ticked off a series of restrictive legislative initiatives and other domestic policies of the Netanyahu government that he said violated the spirit of Israel’s founders and threatened to undermine its democracy.
Rubinstein listed several prominent public figures, all of them identified with the political center or right, who have issued warnings recently about threats to democracy. Included were former defense minister Moshe Yaalon; former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak; deputy military chief of staff Yair Golan; former environmental affairs minister Avi Gabay, who recently resigned in protest over the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister; and conservative television defense commentator Roni Daniel, who said on air recently that he was no longer sure he wanted his children living in Israel.
“The fact that central people from the center and right say they’re worried about Israeli democracy is clear, factual evidence that there’s something to worry about,” Rubinstein said in Hebrew.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).