Israel’s fourth annual Presidents Conference, an event focusing Middle East and economic-related issues, opened Tuesday evening in Jerusalem. Over the coming days, plenary sessions, panels, round tables and master classes will delve into questions as diverse as whether the U.S. is losing its central role in the international arena, to where the social protests sweeping across the globe are heading, to how Israel’s recent social and economic awakening might shape its culture.
Foreign participants in this year’s conference come from diverse backgrounds and various countries, from U.S. political pundit Peter Beinart and former French presidential advisor Jacques Attali, to Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Alassane Dramane Ouattara, the President of the Côte d'Ivoire.
2:59 PM: Rochard adds that Not only dictators are worried about the Internet - parents are too. Safety an privacy issues. (Esther Solomon)
2:56 PM: Connectivity means progress for mankind. Need not to be totally naive - digital revolution also raises issues. 1. Economy- financing what is needed, ie telecoms infrastructure. You need to build this and it is costly. Advanced networks mean more investment, sometimes massive. Revenues also need to be high to finance this. In Europe the regulation is very tight so hard for telecom companies to invest easily. 2. Bubbles: we have been seriously hurt in the past by bubbles - internet bubble, real estate - we have to be careful that we are not stepping into a new bubble of the digital economy right now. The five largest euro telecom companies are worth $200 million - less than one digital company – Google. (Esther Solomon)
2:47 PM: Rochard says the label Orange has 330 million customers worldwide. Says that In Tunisia, France Telecom's 3G networks enabled the Arab Spring to start. Connectivity means progress for mankind. (Esther Solomon)
2:44 PM: France Telecom Chairman and CEO Stephane Rochard: this is my first visit to Israel. I was told Israelis are very warm, full of vision and dynamism. I am fascinated by what I have seen here. (Esther Solomon)
2:44 PM: Vardi calls out hitech reps in the audience - 100 came to the conference: Google, Amazon, AOL, France Telecom, Cisco. Vardi: my job is to make shameless Zionist propaganda and to ensure I am offered this job moderating the panel next year. (Esther Solomon)
2:42 PM: Levy, speaking on the dept crisis in Europe: we are facing a difficult point. There is a debate between public spending and fiscal debt/ in Europe. It's like a room of Jews - 15 different opinions; each has their own policy and attitudes about spending and creating jobs - jobs are the key issue for Europe at the moment.
2:37 PM: Maurice Levy: not one person on earth, including the inventor of the internet, would have foreseen how it would have changed peoples' lives. The use of technological innovations goes far beyond what was assumed to be their function by their inventors who would have thought that Facebook, Twitter and SMS would have fostered the Arab Spring? The tools are changing in the hands of the people - this is empowerment. Amazon should have been invented by Walmart or Target: but innovation is happening outside the mainstream. Facebook should have been invented inside Google – the people who are inventing the future don't come from large established companies. (Esther Solomon)
2:34 PM: Chairman and CEO of Publicis Groupe, Maurice Levy, mentions Publicis' recent acquisition of the Israeli advertising/media company BBR - Yoram Baumann, founder of BBR, stands to a round of applause. Blood Relations, the BBR campaign that won an award from the UN - the first time Israel has won an award from the UN and not a resolution against it.
2:26 PM: End of the first speaker: prosperity will bring peace, and that's where the job-creation and technology comes in. (Esther Solomon)
2:20 PM: Few people asked: how did it happen that Egypt had a mobile telephony and internet service that was worth shutting down? Only a few years ago mobile penetration and internet connectivity was negligible, now mobile connectivity is near 90% there and internet about 30%. This happened because of opening the local market to competition, infrastructure, rule of law. Mobile broadband, ie 3G, is far lower in Egypt - more like 30% penetration rate. Those numbers and numbers worldwide will only increase in the coming years, affecting healthcare, education etc. (Esther Solomon)
2:18 PM: Julius Genachowski, chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission: communications, technology, connectivity has enormous promise to drive growth. Take the Arab Spring. Social media played a profound role in what happened in Egypt. The authorities sought to shut down the internet. (Esther Solomon)
2:14 PM: What's New in New Media panel: hi-tech entrepreneur Yossi Vardi roused the crowd from what he calls the 'graveyard shift' of after lunch conference sessions, by encouraging cheers and clapping for each plenary speaker as they arrived. (Esther Solomon)
1:31 PM: In a Master Class session, Dr. Nir Barzilai talks on the developments and the future of aging. Barzilai is a professor of medicine and genetics, and acts as the director of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's Institute for Aging Research. He is talking about why it seems (or why it is) that some people age slower of faster than others. (Danna Harman)
1:28 PM: Professor Tomaso Poggio is talking about minds, brains and machines in a Master Class session. Presenting a picture of a room full of people. "There is no computer which can answer this question - 'What is the human wearing a hat?' Only the human brain can answer it today." Says that by understanding the brain we have hope we could produce computer who have the same abilities or understandings.
1:06 PM: The session on the brain is wrapping up with a presentation by Amedi about how, with training of just 40-70 hours, blind people's brains can be taught to identify both words and facial expressions through sound. Quite amazing really, this brain of ours. Over and out. (Danna Harman)
12:57: Shaanan Street: to take part in studying Judaism or feel Jewish experiences isn't to do with belief; you can be an atheist too and still gain from the wisdom. We in Israel need to embrace democracy like U.S. Jews have embraced it, to embrace freedom of speech like American Jews have. When we feel we need to take to the streets, it's simple - we are the majority and we just walk out - in the Diaspora it's a different psyche and much more complicated. (Esther Solomon)
12:54: Michaelson: Israel is the food court of Judaism - there are many choices. There is more segmentation in the Diaspora. Riding the light rail in Jerusalem is a rich food court of diversity. Some Russian Jews in the U.S. see their Jewish identity as a race. The kabbalah is not counted much in terms of Jewish identity but it reaches extraordinary numbers of Jews. (Esther Solomon)
12:54: Yehda Kurtzer: aliyah is not the key to marketing Israel or Judaism to Jews in the U.S., History is not destiny - Jewish communities' destruction in the past does not mean that will happen again. (Esther Solomon)
12:47: Blanke points out that both computer gaming and video conferencing will benefit from brain study findings -- in gaming, people will be able to totally engage with avatars, and will feel t avatar as their own body. Cool. In video conferencing we will, in future, have the ability to feel we are in a room even when we are not. Total wow. "The human brain has the capacity to perceive more than four limbs," Blanke says in conclusion. (Danna Harman)
12:38: The panelists are having a discussion on the projection of a self consciousness to avatars and fake bodies, and how this can change how one feels about one's body and of diseases. According to Blanke's studies, virtual or filmed bodies can feels like one's own body. With robotic surgery, it might be possible to create a new augmented capacity of the human brain, he argues.
12:36: When asked what happens in case rabbis instruct not to obey the government, Bar Shalom answers that it should not come to this to begin with. (Lior Kodner)
12:36: Adina Bar Shalom, the founder and CEO of the Heredi College of Jerusalem, says she speaks "as a Haredi woman on democracy": the question is what is to be done in rare cases that there is a conflict between a Jewish state and a democratic state. The rabbis are divided, as are the statesmen. A religious state is not the Haredi rabbinate. In a democracy, the public is leading the leader and the Halacha requires us to recognize the government's authority. (Lior Kedner)
12:33: Blanke is showing a cool video about how the subjects' minds can be tricked into thinking a fake arm is their real arm. A guy sits with his two arms on a table. A third, rubber arm, is placed between the real arms. Someone then rushes to the fake arm with a kitchen knife and subject, frightened, quickly picks up his arms. This is an example, Blanke says, of a person's brain being manipulated by the researchers setting up the experiment. (Danna Harman)
12:29: Blanke is talking about a new research at his center having to do with how the body is represented in the brain and how understanding that representation is important for the self consciousness. "Who is having thoughts? Who is doing actions and realizing it is me? And who is this me, who is doing all this?" He asks. Good questions. He now has five minutes to answer them. (Danna Harman)
12:24: Panelists are discussing the saying -- "i'd rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy," a quote attributed to either W.C. Fields or Dorothy Parker. Bergman is talking about less invasive therapy possibilities including work with stem cells. (Danna Harman)
12:19: A mini riot outside some of the halls. It seems there are two attendees for every seat. Some go out to get headphones for translation and then barred from coming back in. (Danna Harman)
12:18: Panelists are Amir Amedi, a senior lecturer for medical neurobiology at the Hebrew University; Professor Hagai Bergman, a physiologist at the Hebrew University; Professor Olaf Blanke, director of the Center for Neuro-prosthetics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology; Professor Shimon Ullman from the Department of Compuer Science at the Weizmann Institute. (Danna Harman)
12:14: Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of Shalom Hartman Institute: deep humanity of what it means to be Jewish - whatever we do should be suffused with Jewish thought. We may be losing our specific Jewishness and our sense of community where we share values - in a world where we are so involved in wider humanism and spirituality? (Esther Solomon)
12:14: Goodman: "There is no need to separate state and religion, only reorganize it so it will be more Jewish and more Democratic. (Lior Kodner)
12:13: Dr. Micha Goodman, Director of Ein Prat Academy for Leaadership, says there is a problem with the Jewish identity. "Students today can't read Rashi script. There should be a lot more Judaism and less coercion." Goodman says that Israelis wish to change the balance between state and religion, however the relationship with the Arabs are more important at this moment. The Israeli-Arab conflict is concealing all other problems.
12:11: The Brain – Can Machines Improve Humans Panel: panelists are discussing deepening our understanding of the brain and to what extent it has advanced. Moderator Idan Segev, a Hebrew University neuroscience professor, asks whether it's possible to enhance the quality of the brain’s functions by connecting to external equipment. Will such combinations be used to overcome illnesses or can acquire broader capacities that are now only figments of our imagination? Will future interactions between individual and machine influence human nature and the makeup of human society? (Danna Harman)
12:08: At the Judaism and Democracy panel, Chairman of the Jewish Agency Nathan Sharanksy says that Israel's number one goal is to be connected to every Jewish community in the world. (Lior Kodner)
11:52: Shaanan Street: Jews should involve themselves more in their region, learn Arabic. We need to adopt the minority view of the world , to be far more attentive to our surroundings (Esther Solomon)
11:56: Jay Michaelson, contributing editor of The Forward: "Coming out was the most Jewish thing I ever did". (Esther Solomon)
11:54: Shaanan Street: Israelis are the only Jews in the world who live as a majority and not a minority. Israelis therefore treat the minorities in Israel as a majority, with arrogance.Israelis dont understand diaspora Jews, Israelis think why dont diaspora Jews just liquidize their assets and come to the land of shwarma and honey? (Esther Solomon)
11:46: Loudest applause for Hadag Nachash lead singer Shaanan Street at the opening of "New interpretations of ancient identity" panel. (Esther Solomon)
11:15: Segal is wrapping it up. A lot of the audience already streaming out to shmooze during the quick break and see if there are any snacks. (Danna Harman)
11:12: Ashkenazi is saying he can understand the reluctance of the international community to intervene in Syria. At the end of the day, he says, what happens in Damascus, like what happens in Cairo, will be decided by the citizens of those countries and not by anyone on the outside. Ashkenazi suggests that Israel follow and monitor the goings on in Syria very carefully, but do nothing.(Danna Harman)
11:09: Hirsi-Ali: the only non Jew on the panel is also clearly the biggest hawk up there: "you can give the Palestinians Jerusalem and there will still not be peace," she says, talking about the cultural and historical problem with trusting Arabs/Muslims. There is applause.(Danna Harman)
11:06: Wieseltier: "I want to bring up one thing I have recently been hearing that disturbs me enormously," he says, conceding that what he has heard might be totally false. "I live in DC so i hear false things all the time," he adds, to laughter. Anyway, what he understands is that Israel thinks it can target elements of the Teheran regime and bring down the government. "if Israel thinks it can use airplanes to re-order the political landscape, they are very very mistaken," he says.(Danna Harman)
10:56: Segal asks another question, this one about Iran. is it time to attack, he asks. Ashkenazi takes it on - "I dont think military might should be our objective but rather a means to reach that objective, and I think there is still room for diplomacy. We need to keep the threat of force on the table," he says. Segal pressing him: Don't you think that your speaking out against an attack is harmful to our policies in that it is calling the government's bluff? he wants to know. Ashkenazi ducks the question and talks about his military experience informing his positions" (Danna Harman).
10:53: Ashkenazi also believes we need to take action. The foreign policy of Israel is like riding in a bus, he says --everyone wants to get off at the last station, but we have gotten on the slow bus, so we are taking a round about way and keep stopping at unnecessary stops along the way. In any case, he thinks we need to take action.(Danna Harman)
10:52 The presentations are over. A conversation is beginning among the panel members about what Israel should do next. Might it not be better to hang back to wait and see where the pieces fall, Segal asks. "Not at all," Wieseltier responds. "Israel should not be passive." Ross agrees "If you sit back and wait, your options will be worse." Hirsi Ali is also agreeing. "Act," She says.
10:45: Wieseltier is making a very long third point about democratization. he says that historically, jews have always prefered vertical alliancies to horizontal ones. But this vertical allience almost never worked. Over recent decades, modern Israel has reproduced that vertical alliance with its neighbors but it will not serve us now either. "Even if Mubarak's henchmen manage to make their way to the helm in Egypt for one or two or three years," Wieseltier says. "This system will not work." Israel must reach out to the masses and the people -- not rely on the authoritarian heads," he argues. "This will require a renaissance of diplomatic imagination," He says. "Something i have been increasingly pessimistic about." (Danna Harman)
10:42: Wieseltier: three points about democratization in the Arab World: freedom is either freedom for everyone or nothing at all; it's a universal principle and can be no other way; democratization is not an event, it is an era and it always produces anti - democratic reaction. "we should not be shocked by this", he says.(Danna Harman)
10:37: Wieseltier is talking about driving into Jerusalem from the airport the other day , taking route 443 -- "another miracle of Jewish infrastructure," he says, noting that for 2000 years there was no way to know how ingenious the Jews would be at building roads... on other hand, he says, getting serious, he felt an alarming sense of insularity; "I felt we were driving right through the problem," he says.(Danna Harman)
10:34: Wieseltier: There is a complete collapse of diplomatic imagination in this country that the founders would never understand. There is also", he says, a collapse of any proper political opposition" (Danna Harman)
10:32: Next up is bushy white haired U.S. intellectual and author Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic. he is not "you might be happy to hear," he says, going to speak about Iran because he is no expert. Instead he is turning to the Israeli-Palestinian story (Danna Harman)
10:29: Ross: he has gone through the six steps Israel needs to take to "restore belief" between the sides. the first one is to build lots of homes for settlers willing to leave the West Bank in the Galilee and the Negev -- and now turns his attention to six steps Palestinians need to take. First one is to put Israel on their maps. (Danna Harman)
10:24: Ross is now talking about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the problem of restoring belief and trust. How does Ross have the energy to continue banging out the exact same anthem for 20 years. impressive? sad? (Danna Harman)
10:20: Ross: the objective when it comes to Iran, he says, is prevention. But, he stressed, if diplomacy with Iran fails, the country that is going to pay the highest price-- is Iran itself". (Danna Harman)
10:15: Ross: "we need to make it clear to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that you are expected to respect the peace treaty with Israel. if you want to get help from the outside, you play by the rules," he says. Other rules they need to play by? respecting rights of minorities and women in Egypt. (Danna Harman)
10:11: Ross thanks his friend "Shimon" and says that while the rest of us might not be around in 20-30 years, the president of israel, 88, will undoubtedly still be here talking about tomorrow. Peres, sitting in front row likes this. where are Henry Kissinger and Ruth Westheimer, the other youngsters headlining this conference? (Danna Harman)
10:10: Segal is calling up the next speaker: U.S. ambassador Dennis Ross. "for more than 20 years he has been shaping policy in our region," says Segal (Danna Harman).
10:07: Hirsi Ali: "i find that there is a disconnect in your region," she says. "you are dealing with a situation whereby you as a democracy have to negotiate with men who have absolute power." But, she continues: "what i find optimistic about the Arab Spring (which is turning into an Islamic winter) is that, for the first time --Muslim countries/Arab countries have questioned that absolute power."(Danna Harman)
10:03: Hirsi Ali says she is thrilled to be in Israel, which she calls "the only free and only functioning country in this region." she is now telling her life story. (Danna Harman)
10:00: Segal is introducing the next speaker - Ayyan Hirsi Ali, the Muslim Somali writer, activist, and former member of the house of representatives in the Netherlands. (Danna Harman)
09:57: Ashkenazi turns his attention to Iran -- what must be done is to impose increasingly harsh sanctions on Teheran, he says -- but this must be done in a way which is led by and coordinated through the international community. (Danna Harman)
09:55: Ashkenazi is now turning his attention to the domestic scene, and saying (to the sound of applause) that there must be a way to draft both the Orthodox and the Arab Israelis to the army. "this is important not only for our security -- but mainly for our society and for the sake of justice and fairness," he says. (Danna Harman)
09:53: Ashkenazi is wrapping up and saying that, in navigating this changing Middle East landscape, Israel's challenge now is to maintain good relations with the Egyptian military as well as with Turkey. (Danna Harman)
09:52: Ashkenazi turns his attention to syria: he has no doubt, he says, that if assad were to disappear it would afford Israel a window of opportunity vis a vis changing the balance with Iran to our benefit. "there is a moment of opportunity ahead," he says. He also believes that, sooner or later, Assad will be forced off the stage.(Danna Harman)
09:47: Ashkenazi says we should be worried, when thinking about "tomorrow" in our region -- about being surrounded by failed states. "Mubarak was not a democrat and certainly no zionist," says ashkenazi, "...but he was an anchor when it came to stability in the region." (Danna Harman)
09:45: Gabi Ashkenazi on the situation in Syria and Egypt: the lesson to be learned here is that it is impossible to predict what is coming up. many of us thought mubarak would survive and assad would go down (Danna Harman)
09:30: Israeli journalist udi segal who is moderating the "Strategic look on tomorrow" welcomes the panelists: Lt. Gen Gabi Ashkenazi will be the first to speak. (Danna Harman)
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