The prevailing mood of the speeches and panel discussions here at the 11th Annual Herzliya Conference on Israel's National Security can be summed up by the Dire Straits music video playing in the lounge areas: "Sometimes you're the windshield, some times you're the bug."
Iran, Gaza, Hamas, Syria, Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the question marks of Turkey and now Egypt all loom incredibly large here as existential threats of various degrees. More than one thousand people from foreign ministries posted in Tel Aviv, representatives from the State Department, NATO, high profile think tanks, NGO's, advocacy organizations and various pro Israel supporters attended over fifty speeches, panels and breakout sessions, the titles of which reinforcing Israel's Weltanschauung that the rest of the world forgets - and even worse - intentionally ignores, its dangerously hostile neighborhood. Adding to this litany of worries is the delegitimizing of Israel's s right to exist as a Jewish homeland. The concern for Israel's survival was palatable throughout the entire conference.
Dozens of senior diplomats and public officials made their pilgrimage, from Secretary General of NATO H.E. Anders Fogh Rasmussen to Liam Fox -- the first official visit of a UK Secretary of Defense in two decades -- to offer words of reassurance and support, encouragement, warnings, and most importantly, advice.
Tellingly, the ones who most needed to hear and heed those words were conspicuously absent: Prime Minister Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Lieberman and Defense Minister Barak were all no-shows, begging the question: are they irrelevant to Israel's national security? Or, as many of the speakers bluntly asked: is Israel's national security irrelevant to them?
From the speeches by Israeli politicians, that answer is a loud, frustrated, angry YES. In her keynote, opposition leader Tzipi Livni ripped into Bibi's government, accusing it of everything from ignoring Iran, purposely stalling on committing to serious negotiations with the Palestinians, alienating Obama by refusing to extend the settlement freeze, to furthering the rampant culture of corruption. Former Minister of Social Affairs and Social Services, MK Isaac Herzog gave an eloquent indictment on the destruction of core Jewish values by the government's bragging how well Israel's economy is growing while twenty percent live in poverty, warned, "Don't be surprised if Rabin Square fills with citizens sick of taxes eroding their income." This sentiment was echoed by others.
It says volumes about the perceptions of the dangerous changes in the region when the easiest foreign policy win is now perceived to be a peace deal with the Palestinians. To be sure, those who advocated for negotiations to begin immediately had different takes on the difficulties of achieving a final agreement, but all speakers, from Israel and abroad, implored Israel's current leaders to make that deal. This new conventional wisdom, post Egypt, is that peace with the Palestinians is the only way to prevent a return to Israel being surrounded by enemies, and credence is still given to The Situation's use as a recruiting tool for Iran, Al Quada, opening the possibility by the Muslim Brotherhood to turn the protests outward. President Shimon Peres and others even gave credit to Al Jazeera's publishing of the Palestinian Papers and Wikileaks as proof of how willing the Palestinians are, essentially destroying the oft repeated claim or, according to some, excuse, that Israel does not have a viable peace partner.
Egypt was on everyone's mind and figured heavily in the discussions. Most of the foreign speakers from the EU and the US were more forthcoming with their support for the Egyptian people's democratic desires. The Israeli speakers were at best schizophrenically cautious; Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and others reminded the audience that a stable-but-cold peace with Egypt was what enabled Israel to become an economic powerhouse. Almost all the speakers voiced their concern for the direction Egypt could eventually take, once the crowds have gone and the new government formed. The Muslim Brotherhood was alternatively viewed as the new Hezbollah or demoted as a falsely hyped bogyman.
Much was made of the perception that the United States' superpower status is in decline, and blame was laid at the feet of the Obama administration for mistakes in the region, from throwing Mubarak under the bus to ignoring the real threat of a nuclear Iran. American speakers from think tanks and from the administration refuted both those perceptions and angrily dismissed the strongly held Israeli perception of Obama's lack of support for Israel. It is indeed telling one of the few standing ovations came at the end of Mississippi Governor, Republican Haley Barbour's concluding remarks, invoking the Christian commitment for Israel to remain a Jewish state.
The frustrating aspect about a conference such as this, where so many speakers' interpretations of the facts on the ground essentially contradict each other, is the dilemma of what and who to believe. Is a nuclear Iran three years away or ten years away or more, and do sanctions work? Do Israeli intelligence officials really know what is happening in Egypt or are they just watching Al Jazeera like the rest of us? Does Obama have a visionary, long-term foreign policy for the Middle East? Can Israel really make peace with Syria, maybe even before it makes peace with the Palestinians, and how long would an interim agreement with the Palestinian Authority actually take, if the Israeli government suddenly wakes up and displays the will to do it?
Overall, the Herzliya Conference was compelling for its lists of problems but short on solutions. Lots of experts and consistency in suggestions of what has to happen, but, at the end of the day, very little concrete advice of how to make any of these necessary foreign and domestic changes.