The most festive aspect of this year’s “Facing Tomorrow” conference – the fifth in the Presidential Conference series – was the celebration of President Shimon Peres’s 90th birthday on Tuesday night at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. In attendance were past and present world leaders, international scholars, social activists, poets, scientists, artists, clergy, entrepreneurs, economists, industrialists and philanthropists.
The real business of the conference starts Wednesday morning with a plenary session on “Leadership that Makes a Difference,” moderated by Channel 2’s Dana Weiss, with the participation of Peres, Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who previously served as the White House chief of staff under US President Barack Obama and was a key member of the Clinton administration.
Emanuel will remain in Israel for a longer period than most other conference participants. On Sunday, he is scheduled to give a press conference in Jerusalem with the presidents of the University of Chicago and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, to announce an innovative research collaboration.
The trio, joined by experts from both universities, will unveil the action program for a new, high-profile joint initiative to develop game-changing water technologies.
Meanwhile, following this morning’s leadership discussion, Peres will confer the President’s Medal of Distinction on William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States.
Inaugurated last year, the medal is awarded to exceptional individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the State of Israel or to humanity, through their talents, services or any other means.
Early Wednesday evening, Prof. Stanley Fischer will make one of his final public appearances as Bank of Israel governor, at a plenary session discussion on the global economy.
On Thursday, start-up guru Yossi Vardi will moderate a session on whether new media is “still renewing,” according to the program.
Besides these, there will be plenty of other plenary sessions, panels, discussions, master classes and round-tables.
The political situation in the region is of interest to the majority of participants, and there are several options available, including a panel discussion moderated by Jerusalem Post
Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde under the title “Should We Wait It Out? Israel and a Changing Middle East.”
Leading one of the workshops will be internationally acclaimed sex therapist and media personality Dr.
Ruth Westheimer, who has attended every “Facing Tomorrow” conference since the beginning. Her master class last year attracted such a huge attendance that it had to be moved to the main hall.
Ahead of Tuesday night’s birthday bash, Peres was busy with pre-conference events and with receiving guests who had come to celebrate with him – among them actor Robert De Niro, who arrived that morning with his 17-year-old son.
The media had been warned not to ask him any questions or try to be photographed with him.
When he sat down in the small reception room adjacent to the President’s Office, he saw a phalanx of cameras aimed at him – so he took out his own camera and placed it on the table.
A few minutes later, Peres entered the room and told him how delighted he was to see him again. Peres reminded De Niro that they had first met in a private home. Later Peres had seen him again in Paris, “but you didn’t recognize me,” said the president.
“Did you speak to me?” queried De Niro.
Peres admitted that he hadn’t made the effort.
De Niro was casual in his interactions with the president, and even indulged in a little name-dropping. He has been to Israel four or five times before (he couldn’t remember exactly how many); on previous visits, he met with former president Ezer Weizmann and former IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan. He wished Peres a happy birthday and mentioned that he would be celebrating his own 70th birthday in a couple of months.
“Once 70 was old, but not anymore,” said Peres. “Now people still work at that age.”
De Niro indicated that this was what he wanted to do.
Casting an eye on De Niro’s son, the president said, “I want to tell you something about the history of the country.”
“Good,” said the boy’s father, “because he doesn’t know about it.”
At that point the media were asked to leave, and Peres and his guests adjourned to the his office, where they discussed regional developments and Israel’s relations with its neighbors. Peres did not forget to deliver the promised history lesson.
Across the road from the President’s Residence, neighbors hung congratulatory banners from their balconies.
The entrance of one building on Hanassi Street contained a birthday message from the neighbors; on the other side was a banner with a portrait of imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard on the left and Peres on the right, with text entreating Peres to save Pollard.
A couple of buildings down the street, there was another congratulatory banner, with one difference: The neighbors wanted to know why they hadn’t been invited to the celebrations.