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The annual Herzliya Conference, an important conclave devoted to Israel's national security, is where everyone wants to be seen and heard.
Its indefatigable and brilliant progenitor Prof. Uzi Arad and his devoted staff again this year assembled a remarkable roster of speakers and an important audience. The list of the outstanding participants who said remarkable things was impressive. It included (in order of appearance) Eli Hurvitz, president of Teva and a pillar of our establishment who refreshingly and brutally lashed out at our political leadership for its total incompetence; former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu who analyzed the great dangers emanating from Iran, called for a focused initiative to deal with them and suggested concrete steps to do so; the usually reserved MK. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Matan Vilna'i who surprised us all with a frank indictment of the lack of any planning or orderly governance by our establishment; former chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya'alon, an emblem of frankness, who warned against the tendency among our elites to be blind to the existential dangers facing Israel; the outstanding (in his breadth and depth of knowledge and his ability to weave so many strands together into a rich tapestry) Bernard Lewis who underscored the present dangers posed by Islamic triumphalism and its deadly external and internal conflicts; one of America's most respected strategic thinkers, former CIA director James Woolsey, whose nuanced analysis led to plainspoken conclusions: to wit that Israel must rid itself of the illusion that it can find in present Palestinian politics a partner for peace or that if it only made further concessions it could strengthen such putative moderates and reverse the tide promoted by Saudi and Iranian extremists (small wonder that this remarkable speech got little exposure in our "peace loving" media).
These speakers and others - such as Dan Schueftan, former prime minister of Spain Jose Maria Aznar, Alan Dershowitz, Matthew Bronfman, Malcolm Hoenlein, Irwin Cotler, Natan Sharansky, Richard Landes, and Nobel Laureate Robert Aumann - all had important, original and eloquent things to say.
Had they had more time to speak and had they not been part of a production line of speakers, their powerful messages would have resonated more widely. But the short time allotted to them, and the overcrowded schedule, did not allow their important messages to sink in, or to be properly discussed and reflected upon.
THE THOUGHT-provoking reflections of Charles Murray on the Jewish genius, though given 30 minutes or more, were immediately followed by such a thicket of sessions that there was no time really to savor their wit and substance.
The effect of his visit would have been far more dramatic had the Israeli media and the public been made aware of his great importance. Indeed, Herzliya could have rendered a great service to rational debate in Israel by introducing Murray to his intellectual counterparts and adversaries.
It could have exposed them to one of the most germane and influential social reformers whose path-breaking book Losing Ground and subsequent original research and studies have generated crucial social reforms that reversed some of the harm done to the poor by welfare bureaucracies run amok (as in Israel). This could have jump-started a vital debate on how to really help our poor, and could have established the Herzliya Conference as a prime mover in resolving thorny national issues.
THE FIRST economic topic the conference addressed was appropriately the historical and revolutionary financial market reform. Unfortunately, the chairmanship of the session was inexplicably given to Amir Barnea, who has been a consultant to the banks in their ferocious battle against the reform.
Of the three panel speakers two were bank directors. Hapoalim's CEO Zvi Ziv exploited the podium to push for a commercial advantage for his bank, brazenly warning that if it were not given the right to advise pension clients from "the periphery" (whom the banks mercilessly despoil) the poor souls will suffer.
Yossi Bachar, the man who led the reform, tried to explain its importance by analyzing its background and its beneficial consequences. But he was interrupted so often by the chairman that the session ended without really elucidating what was "Israel's Financial Strength Following the Reform" or explaining the reform's immense importance, which according to the World Economic Forum was in great part responsible for the recent amazing resilience and growth of the Israeli economy.
The session sponsored by Yossi Hollander's Institute for Economic Planning on "Reducing Poverty through Economic Growth" broke new ground with a novel statistical analysis that yielded important insights. Here too Herzliya could have served as catalyst for an important debate. But again the rush forward did not permit the proper consideration and development of this important issue.
In seven years Herzliya has expanded so widely (since practically everything can be related to Israel's security) that its focus is becoming blurred, and its messages buried under an avalanche of sessions and speakers - not all useful.
It could be made much more effective by cutting its overly ambitious agenda. More time could then be allowed for debate and reflection. The now disparate elements of the agenda could then be better galvanized into a coherent whole, capable of stimulating further dialogue and debate.
The importance of Herzliya requires that its organizers consider changes that will help fulfill its enormous potential.