Herzliya Conference: Israeli leaders practice the politics of fear

From President Peres to dovish ex-minister Isaac Herzog, speakers at the prestigious Herzliya Conference didn’t offer Israelis much hope.

A few days ago, I woke up and went through my usual morning routine.  I walked my dog, drank my mug of tea and read the headlines on the Ha’aretz website.  Here’s what I saw: Ikea’s flagship Israel shop in Netanya burned to the ground, a pipeline supplying gas to Israel exploded (allegedly thanks to a few crafty militants), and the newly-appointed Vice President of Israel’s southern neighbor had reportedly survived an assassination attempt.  Looking again at the news outlet’s homepage, I thought to myself, “None of this had been here before I went to bed 7 hours ago!”

And so I wondered: how could a country that physically fits into Florida eight times, with a population roughly equal to that of Tajikistan, have so much to report about in such a short period of time?  Even without seeing any empirical data, I am convinced that Israel must be among the world’s top per capita generator of news.  And there’s an appetite for it.

When I began my first job in television, my then-boss told me, “People watch the news for one reason and one reason only: they want to know if it’s safe to go outside.”  I must admit, after skimming through Ha’aretz that morning, I had my own reservations.  I quickly got over any fears of a looming apocalypse and proceeded with my day.  (There is, after all, another Ikea in Rishon Le Zion.)  Then on Sunday, I was reminded again that it might be best to stay indoors.  I attended the opening session of the 11th annual Herzliya Conference.  For those unfamiliar with the event, it essentially hosts leading political and economic thinkers and provides a forum for the presentation of new (and old) policy ideas.  A friend/colleague of mine referred to it as a love-fest for neo-conservatives.  It is where several years ago former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his Gaza disengagement plan.  Since then, everyone has been watching and waiting for something big to again come from the conference.

The opening session on Sunday evening involved a high-ranking military official who warned of looming threats from the global delegitimization campaign waged against Israel, from the instability of the Palestinian Authority and the territory it governs, from the potential uncertainties of Egypt’s revolution, and of course from the immediate threats posed by Iran’s Islamic regime.  According to Maj Gen Amir Eshel, “The question is not whether they will achieve nuclear weapons, but when they will achieve nuclear weapons.”  Eshel is the head of the Israeli military’s planning branch.  One might assume that if Eshel has cause to worry, so too should everyone else.

Enter Isaac “Buzi” Herzog, a Labor Member of Knesset and one of the recently-resigned ministers who split from the Netanyahu government following Defense Minister’s Ehud Barak’s manuoevering in January.  Herzog warned the Herzliya Conference crowd, “The Middle East surprises us everyday.”  Essentially he revealed that the upper political echelon was unprepared, uninformed and unaware of the changes that were about to happen in Israel’s backyard.  But let’s assume it is still safe to go outside.  Then come more warnings from Herzog: the domestic woes faced by Israelis who in recent weeks woke up and saw a rise in price of bread, petrol and water.  In a country where the average monthly salary of a working two-parent household amounts to about four-thousand US dollars, nearly the same as the monthly cost of providing for that household, is it so far-fetched, Herzog asked, to imagine that people here at some point may rise up and revolt? Could Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square one day mirror Egypt’s Tahrir Square?  (Remember, protests in the latter — and also in Tunisia — began with the economic frustrations of the younger generation.)

For now, it is probably still safe for Israelis to leave their homes.  And I think it may be a while before millions of Israelis descend upon Tel Aviv’s streets demanding Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu resign and flee.  But change does come.  And when it comes, it comes quickly.  Perhaps this sentiment was best summarized by President Shimon Peres’ opening remarks at the conference, in which he expressed the difficulties in getting ready for such a presentation.  “From the moment you prepare a speech until the time you actually deliver it, there could be a revolution.”  Let’s see what tomorrow’s headlines reveal.