Conference chairman Maimon thrives amid frenzy

We’ve created a brand showing the best and nicest face of Israel, says former cabinet secretary.

Israel Maimon 370 (photo credit: Chen Galili/ShiloPro)
Israel Maimon 370
(photo credit: Chen Galili/ShiloPro)
When everyone involved with organizing the first Israeli Presidential Conference in 2008 sat down afterward to review its impact, there were doubts as to whether its resounding success could repeat itself from year to year, and whether its content could be sufficiently renewed to remain interesting and attractive.
The first conference had the value-added aspect of immediately following Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations. 2012 was not this kind of milestone year for Israel – unless one counts the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
It was, however, a milestone year in the relationship between President Shimon Peres – who conceived of the Israeli Presidential Conference with its ongoing “facing tomorrow” theme – and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who met for the first time in 1962 during Kissinger’s initial visit to Israel.
It was in this 50th anniversary year of their friendship that Peres for the first time conferred the Presidential Award of Distinction on people who had made a unique contribution to humanity, the State of Israel and in repairing the world. Kissinger was among the six recipients and came for a lightning visit to Israel to receive the award on the opening night this week of the fourth annual Israeli Presidential Conference.
Because Kissinger has been contributing longer – and on a broader global scale – than any of the other recipients, he received his award separately.
It came with all the fanfare deserving of someone of his international stature, including a video presentation of his life.
The award was bestowed with speeches by Peres, Kissinger and former British prime minister Tony Blair – whom Kissinger had mentored early in his Downing Street tenure – and the event was everything a gala should be.
Interviewed the following morning by The Jerusalem Post, Israel Maimon, the chairman of the conference steering committee since its inception, could barely contain his smile of triumph. It takes time for a concept to become a brand, but judging by the huge conference attendance during a global recession – 4,000 participants came from more than 20 countries, with some 1,500 participants flying in from abroad – Maimon was no less excited and exhausted than he had been the first time around.
“Last night was a great example of a classic evening that showed the best and the nicest face of Israel,” he enthused. “We’ve created a brand.”
As cabinet secretary first to Ariel Sharon and then to Ehud Olmert, Maimon – who spent four-and-a-half years in the Prime Minister’s Office – has certainly been there and done that. But he is far from jaded, and is already anticipating next year’s conference.
Why does he need this headache, not to mention the time away from his law practice and the content development company he founded? Maimon acknowledged that it is challenging to travel around the world and raise funds for the conference’s NIS 10 million budget, but said he derives tremendous satisfaction from making new friends for Israel and the Jewish people through what he calls indirect public relations.
The challenge is to get Jews from all walks of life and with little or no connection to Israel or the Jewish people to take the first steps. It is also of great significance to Maimon that the conference draws people from many farflung places to Jerusalem, where they can gain a perspective on the city that is completely different from its media portrayal. In this respect, Maimon said of Peres: “He’s the lighthouse.”
Peres, soon after taking office, had told Maimon: “I’m here for seven years. Use me to Israel’s advantage.”
But the conference needed an additional draw so participants would keep attending and bring others with them.
Here, Maimon paid tribute to Ambassador Avi Gil, who is responsible for content and has been working with Peres for years.
Gil did the important job, Maimon explained, of ensuring the content was not only Judaism and Israel but also global and universal – in order to motivate unaffiliated Jews and non-Jews to participate.
When it was put to him that all this information is readily available on the Internet, Maimon quoted world-famous sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a speaker at the conference, who said: “It’s different when you move through the corridors and can touch people and interact with them.”
The steering committee consists of around twenty people that Maimon has worked closely in the past, and each has a specific role. Nonetheless, Maimon oversees everything, from the way a cup of coffee is served to the content of Blair’s speech. Throughout the conference, he could be seen moving from one session to another to check that everything was functioning smoothly.
Moreover, our interview was interrupted several times by staff members with problems.
Unruffled and without missing a beat, Maimon solved them instantly – sometimes with just a verbal solution, other times with a call or two – then instantly returned to where he left off in the interview.
The Presidential Conference is the largest in Israel – even bigger than meetings of the largest Zionist organizations.
In keeping with the theme, participants together with some 150-200 speakers were looking 10 and 20 years ahead into the real “tomorrow.”
“This gives us a platform to work towards the future and to mobilize others to work towards that future,” Maimon said.
His only regret is that he does not have the budget to follow the Davos model, where special interest groups create a project, work on it and meet on a monthly basis. But he is optimistic that one day, this too will come.
Meanwhile his mind is already on the fifth Israeli Presidential Conference, which like its predecessors, will start from zero, as if it was the first conference. In Maimon’s philosophy, this is the way the conference continues to remain fresh – with the guiding principle that creative thought begins with a clean slate.