The fifth Israeli Presidential Conference, the brainchild of President Shimon Peres, drew more than the usual crowd of academics, entrepreneurs, government officials, and foreign dignitaries this year. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Rahm Emanuel, Barbra Streisand, Sharon Stone, and Robert De Niro were among the A-list celebrities who came to this year's conference, which doubled as a celebration of Peres's 90th birthday. The 2013 conference was again billed as "Facing Tomorrow," in line with Peres's oft-heard claim that history doesn't interest him - "it bores me," he says. The President, he'll have you know, would rather spend his time, attention, and abundant energy focusing on the future. Indeed, on the eve of the conference, Peres wrote in his Huffington Post blog that the conference was meant to "dedicate our time not to yesterday, but to tomorrow."
But it was the past - or, more precisely, Peres's past accomplishments - that attracted the big names and which enabled the conference organizers to raise the $3 million in private donations that funded the conference. On the night of the gala, invitees watched a retrospective slideshow on Peres's career that highlighted his myriad accomplishments from nearly seven decades of public service. Screened between musical and dance performances, a stand-up routine, and brief speeches by Blair and Clinton, it effectively tied the milestones of Peres's career with the history of Israel.
If the past inspired the opening ceremonies with all the fanfare and tributes to Peres, it is concerns about Israel's present situation - the instability of the neighborhood in the wake of the Arab Awakening, the Iranian nuclear program, Israel's growing isolation, the country's socio-economic unrest - that was foremost on attendees' minds, as was reflected in some of the more popular plenary sessions.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's participation in the conference was a sobering reminder that many of Israel's present problems can be attributed in no small part to Netanyahu's policies. The Prime Minister waxed poetic about the nonagenarian during the birthday gala, but it is doubtful that the crowd confused Netanyahu's professions of support for a peace deal that Peres has been championing for years with the Prime Minister's intransigence on this issue. Clinton may have been addressing Netanyahu when he declared: "I'm like President Peres. I don't see any alternative to a Palestinian state...You're going to have to share the future." Others were more direct in criticizing Netanyahu's policies. Former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan blasted those in the government who claim that serious negotiations with the Palestinians is not possible, calling such talk "very damaging to Israel."
To be sure, this year's conference did not shy away from addressing the issues of tomorrow. Beyond the obvious themes of security, diplomacy, and economics, the conference featured plenary sessions, exhibits, and project launches on several of the Israeli President's passions: brain science, nanotechnology, and green technology. Interactive exhibits showcased scientific breakthroughs from leading Israeli scientists as well as Israel's role in the Human Brain Project. Adding to the star power of the conference, Prince Albert II of Monaco and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo joined a panel that addressed the question "Is there Hope for a Greener Tomorrow?"
One question that was not addressed, however, is what tomorrow holds for Peres, whose seven-year term as President is up next year. If the past and the present are good indicators, then the answer to this question is also relevant to Israel's future.