NEW YORK – On the El Al flight from Ben-Gurion Airport to JFK, as Ehud Olmert
walked past and Gabi Ashkenazi posed for a photo with a flight attendant, a
woman across the aisle from me asked her friend, “Why are there so many VIPs on
this flight?” Her friend, who happened to be reading The Jerusalem Post, said
that she had heard that the newspaper was holding a big conference in New York
City on Sunday.
“Sounds interesting!” the woman remarked. Her
words were prophetic.
Reflecting the situation in Israel as the Post
seeks to do on its pages, there was not a dull moment.
As master of
ceremonies, it was my job to introduce all the VIPs and chat with them and the
crowd during the breaks.
And the consensus, from prominent personalities
such as Malcolm Hoenlein and Richard Stone of the Conference of Presidents of
Major American Jewish Organizations to Jewish and Christian guests who flew in
from as far as Mexico and France, was: “Well done! You put on a spectacular
show!” The first Jerusalem Post Conference began at 9 a.m. in a packed hall of
more than 1,200 people at the beautiful Marriott Marquis in Times Square, with
nine fascinating speeches by our distinguished guests. After a kosher lunch, the
participants heard three dramatic panel discussions on the security situation in
Israel, Israel-Diaspora relations and countering the delegitimization of
There were dozens of journalists covering the events, from Israel
and the US. At last count there were over 1,000 newspaper, radio, television and
Internet reports on the conference.
On Sunday, it was the top of the news
in most Israeli media.
The person who drew the most attention and
controversy was, as expected, the keynote speaker, Olmert, who eloquently fired
in all directions.
The former prime minister blamed ministers in his own government for sabotaging an imminent peace
agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, accused Abbas of
not responding positively to his peace plan and criticized Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu for not making sufficient efforts toward peace with the
But he strongly defended US President Barack Obama as a
friend of Israel, noting that despite the US economic crisis, he had not cut
defense aid to Israel. This elicited a mixture of applause and boos from the
When someone in the crowd shouted out, “Go home!” Olmert
swiftly silenced him, saying he had devoted his life to Israel and would not be
intimidated by an outsider telling him what to do.
However, when Olmert
insisted that settlement construction was not the heart of the Middle East
problem, and that the government should continue to build in Jerusalem
neighborhoods such as Har Homa and Pisgat Ze’ev, because they would always be
part of Israel, he was applauded loudly.
Olmert, together with Ashkenazi,
the former IDF chief of staff, and Meir Dagan, the former Mossad director, all
said Israel should give international sanctions against Iran a chance before
considering military action. Olmert said different avenues of pressure must be
exhausted before resorting to a military option.
Dagan stressed that Iran
was an international problem and not an Israeli one, while Ashkenazi called for
more severe sanctions on Tehran and insisted that Israel should have a credible
military option on the table.
Dagan warned that a nuclear Iran would lead
to a dangerous arms race, not only in the Middle East but in the whole world. He
said he had no doubt that the IAF could destroy the infrastructure of Iran’s
nuclear power, but Israel would then find itself involved in a regional war
involving Hezbollah and possibly Syria.
There was an uncomfortable,
heated exchange as Dagan and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan
clashed over the proposed “Dagan Law,” barring former security officials from
making political statements during a defined coolingoff period.
slammed former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin for
criticizing Netanyahu’s “messianic tendencies,” his bellicose threats against
Iran, inability to conduct a war and lack of progress in peace with the
Palestinians. Erdan said Diskin should have quit, rather than waiting five years
to make comments so harmful to the State of Israel.
Turning to Erdan,
Dagan shot back, saying that as in Germany, you know where you begin, but you
don’t know where you end.
Erdan responded sharply to the reference to the
Holocaust, calling it “low rhetoric,” while suggesting that former Mossad chiefs
should not sabotage Netanyahu’s efforts to enlist international support against
Olmert sought to calm the situation by defending all the heads and
former heads of Israel’s security services, saying they were not enemies of
Israel, but merely differed in their opinions, and this was healthy in a vibrant
It was, possibly, the most dramatic moment in the
Caroline B. Glick, Post senior contributing editor, drew
cheers from the crowd when she called for permanent Israeli control of Judea and
Samaria, saying it was better to keep the Palestinians inside Israel rather than
allow them to establish a “terror state.”
She also quoted a Post poll
indicating that less than one-third of American Jews believe Obama is a friend
The ever-eloquent Alan Dershowitz garnered a standing ovation
from the crowd when he appealed to Israelis not to hang their dirty laundry in
public, keep internal debates in Israel and, when on American soil, refrain from
criticizing standing presidents such as Obama, who was essentially a friend of
For his part, Dershowitz focused his anger at what he called the
almost eroticized delegitimization of Israel among certain intellectual elites,
including Jews and Israelis.
This new form of anti-Semitism, he said, was
as lethal as the rhetoric before the Holocaust, and he urged Israel and world
Jewry to combat it effectively.
Alon Pinkas, the former Israeli consul-
general in New York, said Israel should not focus its efforts on defending every
single assault on it, and become a normal state like Canada, without having to
justify its legitimacy on a daily basis.
Journalist David Suissa proposed
that Israel be proactive and adopt a radical position to speak up for the
oppressed peoples of the Arab world, for women and homosexuals, taking the moral
high ground rather than constantly being on the defensive.
Shkedy, the former commander of the IAF and current CEO of El Al, was a crowd
favorite, receiving a warm reception when he called for all Israeli citizens to
participate in military or civil service, while insisting that most of the
haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities support the existence of the State of
Israel, just like himself and the rest of us.
During the lunch break, I
asked a group of American students what they thought the highlight of the
After thinking for a bit, one told me that Alan
Dershowitz was the wisest, Caroline Glick the most controversial, Meir Dagan the
most interesting, Gabi Ashkenazi the most rational and Gilad Erdan the most
At the end, as I shook hands with the VIPs and hundreds of
guests, most congratulated me on an exceptional event that provided enormous
insight into the situation in Israel and the Jewish world.
One man, a
Christian lover of Israel from Texas, praised me for calling Israel “the
homepage of the Jewish people” in my speech, and said he had visited the Jewish
state 16 times.
Others said they planned to attend the Post’s next annual
conference, which is currently scheduled for London.
conference, I presented a special award on behalf of The Jerusalem Post to
Limmud FSU for their contribution to strengthening Jewish identity. The prize
was accepted by Matthew Bronfman, Nona Kuchina and Moshe Shneerson.
conference ended with an inspiring performance by Neshama Carlebach and the
Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir. Despite the drama of the day, and the
sometimes acrimonious exchanges between speakers and panelists, I was left with
a strong feeling of hope for the future, for The Jerusalem Post, Israel and
As I said in my speech, it is Iran that is isolated in
today’s world, not Israel. And despite our few infamous enemies, headed by Iran,
Israel is very popular among many nations and people, especially here in New
York City! If nothing else, the conference and its many interesting speakers
proved that while there may be sharp differences of opinion over where Israel is
headed, the Zionist dream is alive and well, and the Jewish state has many more
fans than foes.
An American colleague, Richard Behar, sent me a note
saying, “It was truly a spectacular conference, and my eyes and ears were glued
to the stage from 9 a.m. until the day’s end... Thank you for an absolutely
perfect day, one that I will always remember and cherish, as a Jew and as a
As I took a taxi to JFK, the Russian Jewish cabbie asked
what I had done in New York. When I told him, he said: “Oh, I heard it was a big
I gave a few of your people a ride to and from the
And at the airport, the El Al security employee remarked, “Wow,
you guys created a big buzz. I’ve seen it on the news all over the place.”