Borderline Views: The Herzliya festival

Conferences such as Herzliya, Caesarea and Sderot have become alternative forums for national leaders to make policy statements, largely for press consumption.

Gabi Ashkenazi at Herzliya Conference 311 (photo credit: Uri Porat)
Gabi Ashkenazi at Herzliya Conference 311
(photo credit: Uri Porat)
This week’s Herzliya Conference is, as in all previous years, dedicated to an assessment of national security. The usual crop of local and international Jewish personalities will be present, many of whom have paid for the privilege of a 10-minute spot – the most important thing being that their name appears on the program rather than that they have something substantially new or different to say. A glance at the conference program would suggest it is not what it used to be, with fewer national leaders and almost no major international figures being present.
The Herzliya Conference has spawned a national conference circuit, with major social and political issues of the day becoming the focus for different meetings – from media and journalism in Eilat, social and welfare policy in Sderot and economics and democracy in Caesarea (which actually preceded the Herzliya Conference). Each is sponsored by a particular institution and personality, each vies with the other to present itself as the ultimate statement on particular policy issues facing the state in the coming year. Each vies for media coverage, with the key presentations – such as that of the prime minister – planned for the peak news hours in the hope that part of the address will be covered live.
There has been much criticism of these conferences. Most of the speakers have to pay a considerable sum to the organizers in order to appear. If this was their own money it would perhaps be no more than laughable, but the fact that government ministries or Jewish organizations are using public funds – funds which have been donated for other charitable purposes – to promote themselves raises serious questions about public ethics and morals.
It would appear that the number of people prepared to pay the astronomical sums which have been asked from them in the past has significantly declined. To cover costs, this year’s invitations to participate, as a member of the audience, have been accompanied by a registration fee of NIS 1,600 which, I would assume, will only be paid by people whose institutions recognize this as a work-related expense.
Another critique has been that, at their peak, Herzliya, Caesarea and Sderot became alternative forums for national leaders to make policy statements which would be covered by the press. Senior government ministers’ absence from important debates in the Knesset chamber and the parliamentary committees is contrasted with their desire to appear at private conferences, where the media and PR savvy organizers have succeeded in portraying the speeches as the last word on current government thinking.
ALTHOUGH IN recent years it has added token discussions on a range of social and economic issues, the Herzliya meeting focuses on security as defined by the regional military threats and the (exaggerated) threats of delegitimization and anti-Semitism globally This is not surprising given that the successive organizers of the event, Dr. Uzi Arad and Danny Rothschild, have emerged from military and security backgrounds. For them, the concept of security remains linked to notions of physical and military security, while the wider notions of human security – employment, education, environment, human rights – are of no more than secondary importance.
The almost exclusive focus on military security reflects the nature of the peace process.
It constantly amazes me how at Israeli-Palestinian debates and Track II discussions, the majority of the Israelis who promote conflict resolution and peace negotiations are retired generals and military figures. The fact that they have come to a realization that peace is better than war, about which they know a great deal, is a good thing They also understand that a post-army career will bring them greater opportunities, both nationally and internationally, if they promote messages of peace and dialogue, rather than those of belligerence, occupation and confrontation.
Not that what is happening in Iran, the PA and Egypt is somehow irrelevant. It is of critical importance. But the monopolization of the peace debate by ex-military personnel narrows the debate to issues of external threat, rather than the creation of a region which can maintain the peace once the first stage, conflict resolution, has been achieved. There is little discussion or understanding of the wider societal dimensions of peace, the need for normalization, cooperation and the creation of peace through economics and cultural exchange.
For something labeled “peace” to have a long-term effect, it has to impact upon the neighboring societies at grassroots levels, rather than just being relevant to the political and military elites, such as the participants at Herzliya.
The conferences will run their course – they already appear to be in decline. Jewish leaders from around the world will return home with a self-perception that they have rubbed shoulders with the real policy-makers and that they are somehow “in the know” when in reality they have absolutely no idea of what is actually relevant for the other 7 million Israelis – Jewish and Arab. Issues of regional security and anti-Semitism will be highlighted (as they are every year) because this is a way of keeping Diaspora leaders involved, concerned and mobilized.
But at the end of the day, a great deal of money will have been wasted when it could have been put to better use, and the country will continue to function in total disregard, and largely in ignorance, of what has been said in Herzliya.
Perhaps it is time to return the decision- making to the place where it really belongs, the people and their elected representatives in the Knesset.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. The views expressed are his alone.