One on One: Nationalism in a nutshell

This year's J'lem Conference was partly an outreach effort. Explains chairman Robert Rechnitz: You don't send out your dove until you've brought him up properly.

Robert rechnitz 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Robert rechnitz 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Robert (Bobby) Rechnitz frowns as he tells a Kach activist with a yellow star tacked to his shirt either to remove the offensive article or to exit the premises. Though the Fifth Annual Jerusalem Conference - that took place on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Hyatt Hotel on Mount Scopus - has a decidedly right-wing bent, its chairman and co-sponsor is clearly concerned about conduct not conducive to the "building of alliances" with the Left which he believes are crucial for "the good of Israel." Indeed, says Rechnitz, a Los Angeles businessman, deputy chairman of American Friends of Likud and long-time member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, "outreach is the key." Which is why, explains the self-described modern-Orthodox-religious-Zionist Jew, this year's event was held predominantly in English, and included a wider range of viewpoints. "If we get the attention of the media, we will attract a greater number of politicians and others on both sides of the ocean, but to do this, we have to try to be as close to the center as possible." That the intention is to have a cross-section of speakers on the usual topics of security, radical Islam, Sderot, aliya, Winograd and, of course, a nuclear Iran, is visible in the fact, for example, that the conference opens with an address by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, and ends with a keynote lecture by Middle East expert Prof. Bernard Lewis. Ironically, Rechnitz's greatest fear about the guest-list is assuaged when Monday night's hyped-up blizzard becomes more of a slushy nuisance than an obstacle to attendance - making all kinds of contingency plans unnecessary (though some scheduling is shifted, due to a sudden change in the hour of opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu's address). In an hour-long interview on the eve of the conference, and follow-up discussions during intervals between sessions on the fate of Jerusalem, the Winograd Commission, aliya, radical Islam, the Iranian threat, the economy and, of course, the media, Rechnitz expresses concern over Israel's current situation and faith in the ability of the people in the country with "Torah values" to "get their message across." Why did you hold this conference on the heels of last month's Herzliya Conference, which dealt with similar issues? We usually hold the Jerusalem Conference in March or April. This year, we planned it to coincide with Presidents Week in the United States, because, for the first time it was conducted mainly in English, to attract and accommodate as many senators and congressmen as we could who share our views and those of many people here on what's good for Israel. As a Likud loyalist, did you view the conference as a vehicle for paving the way for opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu to become the next prime minister? I don't know if this conference could have accomplished that, but it's certainly my personal desire. He's long overdue to be prime minister. Given the present circumstances, the elections should already have taken place. And I certainly hope that they do take place before the American elections. Why? There's a very strong possibility that the next US president will be a Democrat, which would be a complete change in the regime. Israel's been lucky to have had George W. Bush in the White House - the best friend Israel ever had. And the Kadima government has not only taken this for granted, but has missed many opportunities as a result. The current US administration's policy toward Israel was a "closed eye-open door-open checkbook" one. And that might change in November, though personally I am backing John McCain. He's the most qualified candidate. I would feel secure as a US citizen with him at the helm, and I think he'd be very good for Israel as well. Isn't it odd for you to be an American Jew and a Republican? When my [Holocaust survivor] parents came to the US, they - like every Jew who immigrated - registered as Democrats. When I was growing up, no Jew was a Republican. That has changed. In fact, one of the great organizations, of which I am a member, is the Republican Jewish Coalition. But originally, I was a Democrat, as well. When I was a student in 1968, I worked on the Hubert Humphrey campaign. He was a great friend of Israel. He was running in the Democratic primary race against George McGovern. When McGovern won, all of us who had volunteered for Humphrey - under campaign head Jimmy Roosevelt, the son of the former president - joined him in an organization he founded called "Democrats for Nixon." And we campaigned for [Republican presidential candidate Richard] Nixon against McGovern. At that time, we were democrats who felt that Nixon was the better option. After Nixon won that election - and by the way, after George W. Bush, Nixon was the second best friend Israel ever had in the White House - I shifted to the Republican party, and many people I knew over the years did the same thing, because the Republican party stands for so many of the values that we share. As a Jew who supports McCain, what would you do if your own children were called upon to defend their country, in the event of a draft for Iraq, for example - or Iran? Which country and army would it be - the US or Israel? I'm a Jewish American. If my loyalty were ever questioned - if I were ever forced to choose between the United States and Israel - I wouldn't be living in the United States. These countries are best friends. When you protect the US, you protect Israel; when you protect Israel, you protect democracies like the US. If it came down to a military action, and one of my children was going to have to serve the US, I would consider it his duty as a citizen and would be proud. If it were a matter of choosing between the US and Israel - a scenario I can't imagine ever taking place - I would have to decide whether I wanted to continue living in the US, or whether I wanted to pick up and make aliya. You say the Kadima government has been taking the Bush administration for granted. Do you not feel that way because Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's agenda has not been the one that you would have wanted? It's not an issue of what I would have wanted. There are many sectors in Israel who oppose that agenda, yet don't know how to get their voice out there. There are some very strong opinions among the public that aren't reported in the press, because they don't jibe with those of much of the liberal media. One of the main reasons behind the Jerusalem Conference - which I hoped we achieved - was getting those voices heard. Can you give an example of those voices? Zionists, whether religious or not; people who served in the army for idealistic purposes, who know the difference between the Far East and the Middle East - who don't take off after they finish the army and explore the rest of the world. They live here. Their children live here. Many times, their grandchildren live here. These are people who remember the reasons this country was founded to begin with, and who have the roots and Jewish values that keep this a Jewish homeland. These are people who are often branded as "settlers" or "extremists" - merely because they're here for the right reasons. They are the halutzim [pioneers] of today. And they get branded by labels because of some of their views, and then automatically, they get little attention from the media, much of which do not believe in their agenda. We see this behavior on the part of the press in its treatment of Olmert. As long as he perpetuates a certain agenda, much of the liberal media looks the other way about his shortcomings. Does the Likud really represent the kind of Zionism you're talking about - including religious Zionism? Yes. The Likud is what the nationalist party should be - based on the heritage, traditions and values of what Jews are in this country, and what Israel means to Jews. Of course, there are always going to be some who move to the right. In the last elections, I personally was very disillusioned when Avigdor Lieberman decided to split off. He should have been part of the nationalist party. Had he remained, we would have had the Likud in power. We would have had something strong. Many times, when people break from their parties or coalitions in this country, they help the Left. And they only do it for their own immediate gratification. Yet Netanyahu remained - as finance minister - in the government that approved disengagement, only leaving it at the last minute prior to the withdrawal from Gaza. His critics on the Right argue that this was also for his own immediate gratification, because he could have prevented the pullout, but didn't. While we all deserve criticism, and Bibi certainly gets his fair share, I can tell you that one of his strongest character traits is leadership. And good leadership ensures one thing: the ability to create alliances. By being part of the government as long as he thought it was morally acceptable, he was able to create alliances and yield influence. None of us will ever know what went on behind the scenes, or how much worse it might have been had he not remained as long as he did. I'm sure he was there for the good of Israel and for the good of Likud - and that he put his own personal preferences last. This is why, when many people questioned the timing of his leaving the government, I never did. Many agree that Netanyahu was the best finance minister Israel ever had, and that it was therefore a good thing that he remained in the government as long as he did. As a businessman and a hawk, do you consider the economy as crucial to Israel's survival as everything else? Yes, which is why we invited business leaders from inside and out of the country to attend the conference. I myself am an investor in Israel. The economy is key. This country never would have survived the Second War in Lebanon, if not for the fact that Bibi created a free market here. And, you know, we're not in a recession in the US, but we're going through some trying times. The availability of financing for people like myself in the development business has basically dried up. Meanwhile, the Israeli market continues to grow and grow. I'm very excited about investing in it. I think it's going to continue to escalate. There are many foreign purchasers who are pushing the market up. There are also more and more Israelis becoming successful who reinvest in Israel. This conference has a clear right-leaning bent. Did you invite Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and others whose politics you don't agree with to address the conference in order to make it more mainstream? We invited her because she is the foreign minister of the country, and we have respect for everyone in government, regardless of their opinions. There's no question that whatever Livni is doing, she's doing it because she believes it's in the best interest of the citizens. In years past, the conference may have been weighted more to the Right, but we are trying to be as close to the center as possible, given what's important to us as Torah Jews. Why is it always so crucial for the Right to move events like these to the center, when there are so many other vehicles and voices on the Left who are unapologetic about their positions? Why worry about balance, when the playing field is already tilted - not in your favor? Don't misunderstand me. We're definitely Right of center. But, the center today is what the Right used to be. Everything has shifted to the Left. The reason we need balance is that if we can't build an alliance, we're not going to make any progress. How did your right-wing allies respond to this idea behind the conference? Many people on the Right expressed displeasure. I told them that their views may be right - and for the right reasons - but if no one knows that, they haven't accomplished anything. To those people, I use the example of the dove that was sent out of Noah's ark, and of the olive branch he brings back, the symbol of peace. When you send a dove out, if you clip his left wing, he's not going to fly; if you clip his right wing, he's not going to fly. In other words, we need the Left and the Right. However, you don't send that dove out - you don't set it free - until you've brought him up properly. Because if he doesn't know where he came from, he's never really going to return to the right place. First and foremost, this requires Jewish - not necessarily religious - education and Torah values. And then outreach to the Left to teach them those values. It's a long process. What about the short term? Do you think Israel's doing enough to counter the attacks from Gaza? Israel has a hard time fighting terrorism because it's a humane country - except in the eyes of the press and the world. For some reason, Sderot is not being treated as Tel Aviv or Jerusalem would be, though Sderot is part of Israel to everyone, regardless of political affiliation. This country is not doing enough to protect its citizens. Israel has been weak on any retaliation on Gaza, but retaliation for specific incidents is not going to do anything. You need a military escalation there. You need to fight it as if it's a war. I always believed that [former prime minister] Ariel Sharon was a great warrior, and that part of his plan was that if attacks from Gaza were to follow disengagement, he would go in and fight it as though he were fighting an enemy country. He was a great leader and a great general. He understood that you're only a great general if you have a great army. Now you have some of Israel's finest completely disillusioned because they're put in the line of fire. Look at those soldiers who lost their lives in Lebanon. Read the Winograd Report. Those officers lost their lives because they were being given orders by Olmert to go forward, then to wait a few days until he figured out what to do. Unfortunately, their government bears a lot of responsibility for that. It's only a matter of time before these young men become so disillusioned that the IDF won't be as effective as it used to be. Two major things have happened since the war that could be credited to Olmert: the bombing of an alleged nuclear facility in Syria, and, more recently, the assassination of Hizbullah mastermind Imad Mughniyeh. Is it possible that Olmert is exhibiting strength behind the scenes? It's possible. The assassination of Mughniyeh could have been prepared years in advance, and an opportunity rose this month. But that doesn't mean Olmert initiated it, or that Israel had any responsibility for it. As for the operation in Syria, I say, "kol hakavod." We need to see more of that. Those are the kind of operations the Israeli government was always known for carrying out. Those are the kind of operations due to which the Jews around the world were respected as being fair, honest and very strong people that you don't contend with. And this was a very good message to Iran that Israel is still morally and militarily superior.