What was the point of the Presidential Conference?

'Facing Tomorrow 2011' was touted as the conference that will improve our future. But as comedians and politicians alike failed to deliver clear initiatives for change, it ultimately left some feeling hollow.

Shakira and Pres Peres at IPC (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
Shakira and Pres Peres at IPC
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu closed the third annual Israeli Presidential Conference on Thursday evening with yet another spectacular display of oratorical prowess. But while some of the conference's distinguished speakers should be applauded for waxing insightful, others seemed to do little more than blow hot air that left this audience member feeling distinctly cold.
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I was armed with high expectations for the innovative ideas that some of the “world’s best minds” would no doubt be expressing as their vision for Facing Tomorrow - the conference’s stated mission. But much like the fate of peace processes, most of those expectations came crashing down over the course of the three day event.
Beginning with Tuesday’s plenary session in which Sarah Silverman’s verbal incontinence was matched only by her actual incontinence (moaning to thousands how she was on the verge of “peeing in [her] pants”), and ending with Netanyahu’s eloquent-slogan-filled speech, my reactions ranged from revulsion to confusion to - at best - “meh.”
While I do believe that any event that gathers noted guests from around the world to the Jewish capital can only be a positive thing, there were simply too many points during the conference where I found myself asking, just what is the point?
I’ll mention a few of them here. Let’s begin with Shakira - Sharika [sic] - a woman whom, let’s be honest, doesn’t exactly jump out in one’s mind as being an ideal candidate to solve the world’s problems - unless, of course, the requirements include being in possession of an impressive pair of truth-telling hips. But seriously, as much as I can appreciate the singer’s work with schools in Latin America and I certainly bear no disgruntlement with her generic comments on Tuesday about the importance of education, I couldn’t help but wonder why she of all people was invited to come and speak in Jerusalem.
Apparently President Shimon Peres was inclined to agree; despite confessing that he loved her “Waka Waka” World Cup song and found the singer to be “inspirational,” he still couldn't get her name right. Nonetheless, it would be unfair not to mention the homage Shakira paid to her hosts with her pronouncement that “we are all Israel” (an adaptation of the line “we are all Africa” from the aforementioned song).
But moving swiftly on, I’m not sure what was more embarrassing - Sarah Silverman’s bowel anecdotes or Channel 1’s Yigal Ravid’s failed attempts at being funny. At one stage, I found myself outside conversing with a foreign dignitary (who shall remain nameless) who was appalled at the decision to bring – and I quote –“such a crass and vulgar woman” to what is purportedly a respectable forum under the auspices of Israel’s president.
The bona fide experts fared marginally better in their sessions in comparison to their peers in the entertainment world, yet still they seemed to stop short of delivering innovative and implementable ideas that could definitively change our tomorrow. Many of them, including James Wolfensohn, Prof. Larry Summers, Jimmy Wales and Dennis Ross among countless others, made interesting predictions regarding the future of a range of pertinent issues such as world economy, globalization, and not least of all, peace in the Middle East.
Yet each time I sat on the edge of my seat in anticipation of an actual prescription to resolve some of these issues, I was met with disappointment.
I did, however, enjoy the inter-generational dialogue between Stanley Fischer and his son David, and watching our aging president banter with his own son Chemi positively warmed my insides. A shout out also for former British prime minister Tony Blair, a man who exudes such earnestness when talking about Israel that one cannot help but hang onto his every word.
Last but not least were the prime minister’s eagerly awaited closing remarks. After waiting on line for an eternity while a few thousand people were cleared by security, I only hoped the prime minister wouldn’t disappoint. And at the beginning of his speech, it seemed like Netanyahu would indeed deliver the goods. He began by reminding his rapt audience of Gilad Schalit’s plight and was one of very few participants of the conference who actually took matters a step further when he vowed to change Israel’s policy regarding jailed terrorists. But the applauses were nowhere near as thunderous as those the prime minister received in Congress last month, and as the speech wore on they became increasingly more subdued. The cause of this, I suspect, was the collective feeling of déjà vu that permeated the auditorium.
Netanyahu’s speech might as well have been called “Bibi’s Greatest Hits.” Almost word for word the prime minister regurgitated the same sentiments he’s expressed in recent speeches ad nauseam. The focus was once again the urgent need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. As Netanyahu’s slick slogan goes, "[Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] must say six simple words: 'I will accept a Jewish state.'”
Finally, the last inward groan of the conference came when the prime minister wrapped up his speech with a promotional plug for would-be sponsors Nike. Joking that while the sneaker giants “say ‘just do it,’ I tell [Abbas] ‘just say it.’”The writer is editor of The Jerusalem Post's Premium Zone.