The first full day of meetings at the Herzliya Conference in Herzliya, Israel began on Monday, aptly enough, with a panel discussion entitled “Still Special? U.S.-Israel Relations.” The fact that the organizers even had to pose the question intimated that something was amiss, but surprisingly, the majority of the panelists ignored reality and argued that the relationship was not threatened. This was perhaps due to the fact that two of them were representatives of the governments in question. The others sounded a note of caution about jumping to conclusions too early in Obama’s presidency despite concerns in Israel about the Obama administration’s Middle East policy ranging from its engagement with Iran to its pressure on Israel to compromise aimed at furthering the peace process.
The Herzliya Conference, now in its tenth year, attracts top security experts from around the world to discuss the full range of threats Israel and the international community are facing. The first two days of this year’s conference have seen several members of the Israeli cabinet address the participants – President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu will speak later in the week -- as well as panel discussions on a wide range of issues, including the peace process, the state of the international economy, the role of the U.S. in an evolving global order, energy security, and climate change.
This being my first trip to Israel in fourteen years, I’ve been struck by how much things have changed since my last visit. Construction continues apace in many of Tel Aviv's suburbs – with new housing, shops, and restaurants continuing to take over what were once orange groves or desert. Much as it did when I briefly studied in Israel in the 90s, the peace process still dominates conversations, but significant discussions also focus on Israel’s need for better strategic communications (witness: the Goldstone Report) and Israel’s place in the West – Israel’s application to join the OECD and its future relationship with NATO have both come up frequently at the conference. These debates remind one of the discussions in Europe post-1989, about the future of European integration and Europe’s role in the world. These questions will never be resolved, but the fact that they are being raised speaks to a certain level of security and stability that was not present a decade ago.
Terrorism seems, for now, to have receded somewhat from Israelis’ day to day lives. Yes, many small shops and malls have security guards scanning shoppers, but during the few months I spent in the country in 1996, Israel suffered four suicide bombings in nine days, including a major bombing at a shopping mall in downtown Tel Aviv. The papers were filled with photos and stories about the dead, much as Americans now regularly see photos and stories about the fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan in the newspaper. There were no suicide bombings last year in Israel.
Despite the current calm on the home front, Israel does face continued threats from Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as an existential threat from Iran. Discussions thus far at Herzliya on this issue have not been promising – a Russian diplomat on one panel wouldn’t commit Russian support for sanctions against Iran, saying only that they were a tool that needed to be used carefully.
To watch sessions from the Herzliya conference over the Internet, go here.