The Israeli Security Conference Where Old White Men Plan for War

It felt as if there were only three subjects up for discussion at this year’s Herzliya Conference - and two of those were Iran.

Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
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Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai addressing the Herzliya Conference, June 2014.
Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai addressing the Herzliya Conference, June 2014.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

One of the most common words used at the Herzliya Conference is “threat.”

The conference – an annual gathering featuring many high-profile speakers addressing Israel’s future – hosted a war game involving Iran called The Day After, which included 15 experts from around the world. Only one of them was a woman. If The Day After once referred to when Iran obtains the nuclear bomb – a subject incessantly pumped over Israeli airwaves and about to expire – this time they spoke of another threat, no less terrible, to the world’s existence: The potential agreement between Iran and the six world powers (the P5 +1).

Forget about the atom. According to the war-game organizers, it turns out that Iran won’t be able to restrain itself after a deal is reached, and will try to stir up trouble in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The Iranian delegate in the war game explained logically that Iran will be too busy rehabilitating its economy, but the game continued. A threat is a threat.

It wasn’t a strategic conference, like a club for gray-haired white men who fly afar to speak calmly of threats. In another session in the same auditorium, the situation was tougher and the conversation more exhausting. This one also had 15 participants (but no women this time). Former Knesset member and diplomat Zalman Shoval participated in both sessions.

Few of the conference discussions concerned social issues, as if Israel is simply the sum of its external threats. Iran, Iran and a little cyber war are the new code words of these conferences.

Alan M. Dershowitz remarked how Israel is an economic success. The people who met here are probably getting richer and buying more and more apartments, but these are not the people I know. Earlier, former Likud MK Moshe Kahlon was invited to speak, but the topic of his session – “Philanthropy in the 21st Century: New Trends and Directions” – wasn’t really socially oriented, the session being filled with businessmen who donate money.

The Herzliya Conference, which was held in the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at the Interdisciplinary Center, is a whole other planet, different from the sweaty world outside. Respected people in suits, free coffee, generals and foreign politicians, as well as all-you-can-eat granola with date honey.

The punctual conference staff was comprised of students from the IDC’s School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy. Most were pleased but some had bones to pick. “I barely saw any women speaking – as if a woman can’t talk about security matters and you need only male generals,” said Danielle Smadar, a Master’s student. “There was a girl in the war game, but they barely let her speak.”

Dr. Jennifer Shkabatur was the only female delegate in the war game, representing Russia with one other person. She admitted “it was strange and over -the-top to be alone. It usually doesn’t happen, but it didn’t happen intentionally,” she added.

One of the few who tried to break the formality and joke a little was Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad. “The United States is a superpower, while Israel thinks it’s a superpower,” the director of political-military affairs at the Defense Ministry said. One of those people believing Israel to be a superpower is Dan Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center, who told Channel 1 during the conference, “It is not an option to listen to the Europeans. They are deluded.”

The third session I attended, which Dershowitz led, dealt with the boycott movement. Dershowitz, a lawyer by profession, is a talented speaker, but his thesis is liable to come across as paranoid and irrational. He said that even though he supports a two-state solution, he fears that if Israel compromises, the matter will strengthen the boycott – because people will feel they are managing to hurt Israel. He claimed that Jimmy Carter has blood on his hands and remarked that the proof BDS is not tied to the occupation, but rather plain old anti-Semitism, is that the movement grew while Israel was making compromises.

Dershowitz ignored the fact that, during the years he said the BDS movement was growing stronger, Israel was at war with the Palestinians or the Lebanese, and many Arabs died in a way that the world did not see as justified. He said the proof of the anti-Semitism is that only Israel is being boycotted, as if Iran is not under sanctions and there is no talk about sanctions against Russia in the wake of its annexation of Crimea. Moreover, there are many other nations that the Western world boycotts.

Amos Gilad at the Herzliya Conference, 2013.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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