Sparks fly at ‘Jerusalem Post’ Conference

Editor's Notes: First Jerusalem Post Conference had 1,200 people, 9 fascinating speeches by distinguished guests.

Panelists from Jerusalem Post Conference (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Panelists from Jerusalem Post Conference
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 Israel.
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 Palestinians.
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 audience.
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.
Erdan 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 Iran.
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 democracy.
It was, possibly, the most dramatic moment in the conference.
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 of Israel.
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 Israel.
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.
Eliezer 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 conference was.
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 appealing.
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.
During the 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.
The 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 world Jewry.
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 journalist.”
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 success.
I gave a few of your people a ride to and from the airport.”
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.”