The 2010 Herzliya Conference in Israel ended with a whimper on Wednesday evening. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, delivering the 2010 Herzliya Lecture, stunned the audience of Israeli and international security experts by using his prime time platform to speak about almost every issue except Israel's security.
Netanyahu's speech focused on the need for Israel to have a strong economy, and his government's plans to increase understanding and appreciation for Israel's heritage. Worthy messages, indeed. But the fact that he failed to discuss Israel's greatest threat, Iran, or barely even touch on other major issues, such as Syria, Lebanon, or the peace process, had conference participants buzzing as the conference ended. Some speculated that the speech was a dig at the conference organizers who took over their duties after the previous conference chairman, Uzi Arad, became Netanyahu's national security advisor. Others speculated that this implied that some major developments were underway on Iran -- this was perhaps the silence before the storm.
If not from Netanyahu, Iran received much attention at Herzliya this week. Speaking two days before Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres spoke eloquently about the need to confront Iran not solely as a security issue, but as a moral concern for the West, stating that Iran was a source of evil to all seeking peace and freedom. Netanyahu's coalition partner and defense minister, Ehud Barak, also called on the international community to institute sanctions on Iran, especially given Iran's successful satellite launch this week. And Uzi Arad himself made a veiled reference, during his remarks on the conference's opening day, to activites underway against Iran that could not be publicized.
Non-Israeli officials discussing Iran at the conference were less sanguine. The depressing conclusion from two panel discussions on the Iran nuclear issue was that Iran was likely either to maintain a threshhold nuclear capability in the coming years or develop a nuclear weapon outright. In fact, one panel was devoted to a discussion of the implications of a polynuclear Middle East, in which Iran had gone nuclear and others in the region had followed. As the only Israeli on the panel pointed out, the focus of the panel itself was somewhat disappointing because it sent the message that a nuclear Iran was acceptable. On the margins of the conference, several Iran experts and Iranian dissidents offered widely varying takes on the ongoing turmoil inside Iran, with some predicting that major developments may occur next week during protests surrounding the anniversary of the fall of the shah and others arguing that major change was unlikely for several years.
Beyond Iran, the clear consensus coming out of Herzliya was that little progress is expected in the coming months on the two other major challenges facing Israel: the Palestinians and Syria. As the Jerusalem Post reported today, the Israeli government now believes that President Obama has come around to the Israeli view that solving the Palestinian issue is not the key to resolving Iran -- rather, it's the other way around. We will see if this is correct, but the president's recent interviews on this topic and special envoy George Mitchell's limited travel schedule seem to imply that it might be the case.
As I traveled via taxi from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Thursday, I was reminded once again about Israeli perspectives on President Obama. After hearing that I was an American, my taxi driver said, "With him, everything is opposite" of what it should be and scoffed about his Nobel Peace Prize (given that he had done nothing actually to achieve peace). Sadly, I couldn't provide any solace to my cabbie. Despiite the talking points from Jerusalem and Washington about continuity in U.S.-Israeli relations, it is clear that the Israeli people know better. They, like many in the United States, are hoping that the Obama administration has learned some lessons during its first year in office that impact its policies during year two.
To view videos of Herzliya conference sessions, go here.