When everyone involved with organizing the first Israeli Presidential Conference
in 2008 sat down afterward to review its impact, there were doubts as to whether
its resounding success could repeat itself from year to year, and whether its
content could be sufficiently renewed to remain interesting and
The first conference had the value-added aspect of
immediately following Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations. 2012 was not this
kind of milestone year for Israel – unless one counts the 95th anniversary of
the Balfour Declaration.
It was, however, a milestone year in the
relationship between President Shimon Peres – who conceived of the Israeli
Presidential Conference with its ongoing “facing tomorrow” theme – and former US
secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who met for the first time in 1962 during
Kissinger’s initial visit to Israel.
It was in this 50th anniversary year
of their friendship that Peres for the first time conferred the Presidential
Award of Distinction on people who had made a unique contribution to humanity,
the State of Israel and in repairing the world. Kissinger was among the six
recipients and came for a lightning visit to Israel to receive the award on the
opening night this week of the fourth annual Israeli Presidential
Because Kissinger has been contributing longer – and on a
broader global scale – than any of the other recipients, he received his award
It came with all the fanfare deserving of someone of his
international stature, including a video presentation of his life.
award was bestowed with speeches by Peres, Kissinger and former British prime
minister Tony Blair – whom Kissinger had mentored early in his Downing Street
tenure – and the event was everything a gala should be.
following morning by The Jerusalem Post, Israel Maimon, the chairman of the
conference steering committee since its inception, could barely contain his
smile of triumph. It takes time for a concept to become a brand, but judging by
the huge conference attendance during a global recession – 4,000 participants
came from more than 20 countries, with some 1,500 participants flying in from
abroad – Maimon was no less excited and exhausted than he had been the first
“Last night was a great example of a classic evening that
showed the best and the nicest face of Israel,” he enthused. “We’ve created a
As cabinet secretary first to Ariel Sharon and then to Ehud
Olmert, Maimon – who spent four-and-a-half years in the Prime Minister’s Office
– has certainly been there and done that. But he is far from jaded, and is
already anticipating next year’s conference.
Why does he need this
headache, not to mention the time away from his law practice and the content
development company he founded? Maimon acknowledged that it is challenging to
travel around the world and raise funds for the conference’s NIS 10 million
budget, but said he derives tremendous satisfaction from making new friends for
Israel and the Jewish people through what he calls indirect public
The challenge is to get Jews from all walks of life and with
little or no connection to Israel or the Jewish people to take the first steps.
It is also of great significance to Maimon that the conference draws people from
many farflung places to Jerusalem, where they can gain a perspective on the city
that is completely different from its media portrayal. In this respect,
Maimon said of Peres: “He’s the lighthouse.”
Peres, soon after taking
office, had told Maimon: “I’m here for seven years. Use me to Israel’s
But the conference needed an additional draw so participants
would keep attending and bring others with them.
Here, Maimon paid
tribute to Ambassador Avi Gil, who is responsible for content and has been
working with Peres for years.
Gil did the important job, Maimon
explained, of ensuring the content was not only Judaism and Israel but also
global and universal – in order to motivate unaffiliated Jews and non-Jews to
When it was put to him that all this information is readily
available on the Internet, Maimon quoted world-famous sexologist Dr. Ruth
Westheimer, a speaker at the conference, who said: “It’s different when you move
through the corridors and can touch people and interact with them.”
steering committee consists of around twenty people that Maimon has worked
closely in the past, and each has a specific role. Nonetheless, Maimon oversees
everything, from the way a cup of coffee is served to the content of Blair’s
speech. Throughout the conference, he could be seen moving from one session to
another to check that everything was functioning smoothly.
interview was interrupted several times by staff members with
Unruffled and without missing a beat, Maimon solved them
instantly – sometimes with just a verbal solution, other times with a call or
two – then instantly returned to where he left off in the interview.
Presidential Conference is the largest in Israel – even bigger than meetings of
the largest Zionist organizations.
In keeping with the theme,
participants together with some 150-200 speakers were looking 10 and 20 years
ahead into the real “tomorrow.”
“This gives us a platform to work towards
the future and to mobilize others to work towards that future,” Maimon
His only regret is that he does not have the budget to follow the
Davos model, where special interest groups create a project, work on it and meet
on a monthly basis. But he is optimistic that one day, this too will
Meanwhile his mind is already on the fifth Israeli Presidential
Conference, which like its predecessors, will start from zero, as if it was the
first conference. In Maimon’s philosophy, this is the way the conference
continues to remain fresh – with the guiding principle that creative thought
begins with a clean slate.