Gabi Ashkenazi at Herzliya Conference 311.
(photo credit: Uri Porat)
This week’s Herzliya Conference is, as in all previous years, dedicated to an
assessment of national security. The usual crop of local and
international Jewish personalities will be present, many of whom have paid for
the privilege of a 10-minute spot – the most important thing being that their
name appears on the program rather than that they have something substantially
new or different to say. A glance at the conference program would suggest it is
not what it used to be, with fewer national leaders and almost no major
international figures being present.
The Herzliya Conference has spawned
a national conference circuit, with major social and political issues of the day
becoming the focus for different meetings – from media and journalism in Eilat,
social and welfare policy in Sderot and economics and democracy in Caesarea
(which actually preceded the Herzliya Conference). Each is sponsored by a
particular institution and personality, each vies with the other to present
itself as the ultimate statement on particular policy issues facing the state in
the coming year. Each vies for media coverage, with the key presentations
– such as that of the prime minister – planned for the peak news hours in the
hope that part of the address will be covered live.
There has been much
criticism of these conferences. Most of the speakers have to pay a considerable
sum to the organizers in order to appear. If this was their own money it would
perhaps be no more than laughable, but the fact that government ministries or
Jewish organizations are using public funds – funds which have been donated for
other charitable purposes – to promote themselves raises serious questions about
public ethics and morals.
It would appear that the number of people
prepared to pay the astronomical sums which have been asked from them in the
past has significantly declined. To cover costs, this year’s invitations to
participate, as a member of the audience, have been accompanied by a
registration fee of NIS 1,600 which, I would assume, will only be paid by people
whose institutions recognize this as a work-related expense.
critique has been that, at their peak, Herzliya, Caesarea and Sderot became
alternative forums for national leaders to make policy statements which would be
covered by the press. Senior government ministers’ absence from important
debates in the Knesset chamber and the parliamentary committees is contrasted
with their desire to appear at private conferences, where the media and PR savvy
organizers have succeeded in portraying the speeches as the last word on current
ALTHOUGH IN recent years it has added token
discussions on a range of social and economic issues, the Herzliya meeting
focuses on security as defined by the regional military threats and the
(exaggerated) threats of delegitimization and anti-Semitism globally This is not
surprising given that the successive organizers of the event, Dr. Uzi
Arad and Danny Rothschild, have emerged from military and security backgrounds.
For them, the concept of security remains linked to notions of physical and
military security, while the wider notions of human security – employment,
education, environment, human rights – are of no more than secondary
The almost exclusive focus on military security reflects the
nature of the peace process.
It constantly amazes me how at
Israeli-Palestinian debates and Track II discussions, the majority of the
Israelis who promote conflict resolution and peace negotiations are retired
generals and military figures. The fact that they have come to a realization
that peace is better than war, about which they know a great deal, is a good
thing They also understand that a post-army career will bring them greater
opportunities, both nationally and internationally, if they promote messages of
peace and dialogue, rather than those of belligerence, occupation and
Not that what is happening in Iran, the PA and Egypt is
somehow irrelevant. It is of critical importance. But the monopolization
of the peace debate by ex-military personnel narrows the debate to issues of
external threat, rather than the creation of a region which can maintain the
peace once the first stage, conflict resolution, has been achieved. There is
little discussion or understanding of the wider societal dimensions of peace,
the need for normalization, cooperation and the creation of peace through
economics and cultural exchange.
For something labeled “peace” to have a
long-term effect, it has to impact upon the neighboring societies at grassroots
levels, rather than just being relevant to the political and military elites,
such as the participants at Herzliya.
The conferences will run their
course – they already appear to be in decline. Jewish leaders from around
the world will return home with a self-perception that they have rubbed
shoulders with the real policy-makers and that they are somehow “in the know”
when in reality they have absolutely no idea of what is actually relevant for
the other 7 million Israelis – Jewish and Arab. Issues of regional security and
anti-Semitism will be highlighted (as they are every year) because this is a way
of keeping Diaspora leaders involved, concerned and mobilized.
But at the
end of the day, a great deal of money will have been wasted when it could have
been put to better use, and the country will continue to function in total
disregard, and largely in ignorance, of what has been said in
Perhaps it is time to return the decision- making to the place
where it really belongs, the people and their elected representatives in the
Knesset.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social
Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of
Geopolitics. The views expressed are his alone.