Herzliya Conference spurs controversy in Knesset

Several MKs attack the decision to hold the opening day events in the parliamentary halls.

sheli yehimovitch 88 (photo credit: )
sheli yehimovitch 88
(photo credit: )
Knesset members proved unwilling to wait for the official opening of the Herzliya Conference next week to launch into debate, as several attacked the decision to hold the opening day events in the parliamentary halls. Since its inception seven years ago, the IDC-sponsored Herzliya Conference has become Israel's most well-known summit on state security and policy. MKs have long criticized the importance that the media and senior government officials grant the conference, arguing that instead of giving an NGO the forum to oversee government policy, the Knesset should be establishing its own system of review. This year, the Knesset has taken the unprecedented step of holding the conference's opening-day events in the parliament. While some, including Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, believe that bringing the conference to the Knesset will help lawmakers foster new debates and create new legislation, others argue that the Knesset is allowing the private sector to do the government's job. MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) has led the debate against the conference. In an editorial published last week, Yacimovich said the conference had become an institution that only represented the interests of those who had enough money to participate. "Allowing the conference to take place in the parliamentary building is the equivalent of the Knesset raising its arms in the air, hoisting up a white flag... and cheapening itself to allow a foreign body [to oversee] the issues the Knesset itself should be establishing," said Yacimovich, who had convinced several other MKs to withdraw their participation in the conference. Despite Yacimovich's appeals, however, 34 MKs are still registered to take part in the conference - more than usually take part in a daily plenum session. "It is apparent that MK Yacimovich has skewed information regarding the Herzliya Conference, the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) that runs it, and the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya that houses them," said a spokesman for the conference. "The Herzliya Conference has always been about developing the public discourse in Israel and has opened its doors to every side of every issue debated on its floor," the spokesman said. "There is no justification for MK Yacimovich's claims of power-brokering with the establishment at the conference. As a matter of fact, the Knesset party with the highest representation in this year's conference is her own Labor party." The decision to hold the opening day session in the Knesset was made after a lengthy debate. Initially conference organizers requested that the opening-day dinner be held in the Knesset's Chagall Hall. The Knesset vetoed that request because it did "not want to be perceived as a ceremonial auditorium to be used as thought it were a wedding or bar mitzva venue," a senior Knesset official said. Several rounds of debate later, the conference organizers agreed to hold the opening day at the parliament, including a formal dinner with a keynote speech by IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. "The Knesset is the national stage for the public discourse in Israel," said Ilan Osfeld, Itzik's spokesman. "As long as it opens its doors to all types of debates, conferences and summits, it broadens the debate for lawmakers. This conference is not going to replace the normal work of the Knesset, such as the plenum and committees. It will enrich the normal work, and we hope in the future to open our doors to other conferences." Nearly every week, the Knesset holds conferences on issues ranging from driver safety to anti-drug education for grade schools. The Herzliya Conference has sparked special debate because the issues upon which it touches are sensitive to the public discourse. "It has become a populist thing to say that you are against Herzliya because it is funded by an NGO and by private donors with a lot of money," Osfeld said. "The conference provides a great service that did not exist before. We can either ignore it or pretend it does not happen, or embrace it and learn from it." Sunday's session in the Knesset will include panels on Israel's environmental policies regarding climate change, the importance of Jerusalem "as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people," and the expected impact of the Winograd Report. Developed by the IPS, the conference's self-stated objective is to "enhance Israel's national policy and contribute to the upgrading of its strategic decision-making process, through policy-driven research and direct interaction between policy analysts and policy-makers." Leading up to the winter meeting, the institute commissions research by task forces and experts in the field to conduct "preliminary research and analysis" over one year. Following the conference, the center presents key policymakers with major policy recommendations based on the discussions and conclusions of the panels.