Herzliya conference outlines challenges facing Israel, allies

Yarden Gazit Contributor
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The Herzliya Conference has become Israel’s foremost policy conference, where the country’s political and security elites meet
with academics and media experts to discuss the balance of Israel’s national security. The prime minister’s speech which concludes the conference has become somewhat of a “state of the union” address where previous prime ministers have announced major policy initiatives. Foreign participants include heads of state, senior diplomats and Nobel laureates.

From an American perspective, the 10th annual Herzliya Conference held this week provided a window to the Israeli view of the challenges it faces in the Middle East, from Egypt to Pakistan, and of its relationship with the U.S. Thousands of miles away from Washington, American participants made interesting statements they might not have made in D.C.

“Two diametrically opposed narratives”

Peace negotiations with the Palestinians were the subject of several discussions. Prime Minister Netanyahu said he was hopeful that negotiations will resume “in the next few weeks.” Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave a forceful speech calling for a two-state solution. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad made an appearance at the conference and gave a conciliatory speech.

Nevertheless, few believed that negotiations will lead to peace. Elliot Abrams, a Bush administration official, warned that failed negotiations may be worse than none. Even Fayyad, the most moderate of Palestinian leaders, acknowledged that the sides have “two diametrically opposed narratives.”

There was near consensus that the best way to proceed is the “Fayyad plan,” which includes state-building efforts to prepare Palestinians for independence. “The Fayyad plan is the only path on which we can continue without rocking the boat,” said Israeli cabinet member Dan Meridor.

Peace, therefore, was not the major issue; but this did not bother most participants. “The Middle East is a rough neighborhood,” said Barak. Only Stanly Fischer, the Governor of Israel’s central bank, said in the opening session that “it would have been nice if we talked more about peace.”

“Threats darkening on the horizon”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak defined the conference as well as Israel’s predicament in describing the tension between “unprecedented
tranquility” in the past year and a “host of threats darkening on the horizon.” Discussions dealt with many “peacetime” issues — the prime minister’s speech dealt mostly with education — but national security threats took precedent.

So many possible threats were discussed that Robert Fisk of the Independent wrote that “Israel feels under siege.” Many uncertainties were debated. Who will replace 82-year-old Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who has kept a fragile peace with Israel? How will Iraq look like after the U.S. leaves? Who will dominate Palestinian politics? And above all, will Iran acquire nuclear weapons?

“Sleepwalking into a second nuclear age”

Iran loomed large at Herzliya. Discussions dealt mostly with its nuclear program. Israeli speakers, including cabinet member Moshe Ya’alon, warned of the consequences of a nuclear Iran, including proliferation throughout the region and the loss of Israel’s deterrence.

Paul Bracken, a professor of management and political science at Yale warned that the world is “sleepwalking into a second nuclear age” which will be different from the relatively simple bipolar one during the Cold War. He said academic theory predicts many possible outcomes for a poly-nuclear Middle East, except for one: disarmament. He further stated that there has been little serious work on escalation and de-escalation in a nuclear context. “If you liked a nuclear Asia, you’re going to love a nuclear Middle East,” said Dr. Bruno Tertrais, another participant.

But there were other voices who criticized the sole focus on Iran’s nuclear program. Ms. Roya Hakakin, an Iranian exile, urged the audience to pay attention to the Iranian opposition. Israeli President Shimon Peres focused on the moral aspect when he called the Iranian regime “the peak of moral corruption in the world.” Others warned that Israel is making a mistake by turning Iran into an Israeli problem when in fact it is a global one.


With so many challenges ahead, Israelis tried to assess the support they will get from their traditional allies, the U.S. and Europe. Several European representatives, including Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos, vowed to continue supporting Israel while seeking a greater role in the region. But the statements were taken with a grain of salt, given the unwillingness of Europeans to contribute more to an alliance for their own defense, NATO, much less for security in the Middle East.

The American role was examined in detail. While the U.S. remains
Israel’s most important ally, some of its actions may worsen the
Jewish state’s strategic position.

“Iraq will not be as well controlled as it is today”

Israelis are concerned about the situation in Iraq once U.S. forces leave next year. The same concern rises over Afghanistan in the long run. Even though Iraq seems quiet now, retired general Yosef Kuperwasser said experience of past withdrawals from Lebanon, Gaza and Somalia teaches that the consequences of withdrawal are unpredictable. He offered one pessimistic scenario in which arms from Iran are smuggled through Iraq into Syria and Lebanon. Another concern is that “veterans” of the Iraq war will look for other places to practice terrorism. But the greatest concern is that a democratic Iraq with a Shiite majority will be an ally of Iran.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan is another Israeli concern. The war in Afghanistan may destabilize the area, as well as the Pakistani regime. A nuclear bomb in the hands of a jihadist regime, or proliferation of nuclear materials to terrorists, threaten not only the U.S. but Israel as well.

“Paying for both sides in the war on terror”

Perhaps the greatest challenge to Israel is the radicalization and indoctrination of young Muslims. It is widely known that oil revenues fund Islamic radicalization and terrorism. An interesting discussion dealt with breaking the global oil addiction.

Former Director of the CIA James Woolsey said that Americans are currently “paying for both sides” in the battle against militant Islam. “That is not a great strategy,” he said. He criticized the Obama administration for its cap-and-trade legislation and for caving in to coal and rail lobbyists and wasting stimulus money that was directed at energy projects. The stimulus bill devotes 60$ billion to such projects, he said, but almost none of that is directed at transportation. “Whatever you want to do about oil, you’re not going to do it with cap-and-trade,” he said.

Another source of funds for indoctrination is, surprisingly, Western aid money. The U.S. and European countries spend large amounts of money in support for the Palestinian Authority. Mathew Sinclair of the British Taxpayers’ Alliance explained that much of the money is wasted, and some of it actually funds anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian education system. He contrasted this with the British “education for mutual understanding” program in Northern Ireland that has contributed to peace there.

“Israeli-Palestinian conflict not the only problem in the Middle East”

The conference raised a major difficulty for Israel. While it will be the biggest loser if things go bad in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, it is for the most part no more than a bystander. As general Kuperwasser put it, there is a dissonance between the importance of some of these problems and Israel’s “less than marginal” ability to influence them. This goes to show, he said, that “perhaps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the only problem in the Middle East.”

Peres said in his speech that Israel is the only country in the world that has been helped by the U.S. and remains loyal to it. Given the role the U.S. currently plays in the Middle East, whether the U.S. still helps Israel remains an open question. Given the threats facing Israel, no one at Herzliya had time to answer.