Since its inception three years ago, the Herzliya Conference on the Balance of National Strength and Security has rightly been considered the most important conference in Israel. Its importance stems both from the conference's ability to engage all the members of Israel's elite political, military, economic and academic — and from the comprehensiveness of the issues discussed during its three days of panel discussions that include a wide spectrum of challenges and opportunities facing the state.
The problem with the conference is that, rather than being a forum for open debate and serious engagement on the most salient topics of the day, in some crucial areas, it serves as an obstacle to such debate. Although the conference organizers went to great lengths to provide a balanced forum, we were shown this week that the participants representing the highest echelons of Israeli society, are simply incapable of handling the challenges of such a meeting of the minds. Brought together for three days a year, the Israeli elites use the occasion of the Herzliya Conference not to listen to new ideas but to delineate the borders of acceptable national discourse. And it works out that for certain crucial issues, those borders are quite narrow and wholly counterproductive to the purposes of the conference.
This state of affairs was made most clear with regard to the issue of the future of Israel's relations with the Palestinians. In a panel discussion on the topic, the audience of luminaries listened respectfully as Orit Gal from Yossi Beilin's think tank and former US Ambassador Martin Indyk presented their proposals that the Palestinians, like the Kosovars, be governed by an international trusteeship.
The connotation that Israel is analogous to Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic — who is now being tried for war crimes at The Hague — was barely hidden from view and no one batted a lash.
And yet, when it came time for NRP chairman, Minister Effi Eitam to give his view on the topic, the crowd could not control itself. Eitam offered his original, if wacky scheme of a regional solution to the Palestinian conflict involving setting up a Palestinian state in the Sinai.
Former generals, business tycoons, professors and diplomats, who just moments before had politely swallowed the notion that their country is a criminal state, responded to Eitam's idea with heckles and guffaws, making it difficult to even hear what he was saying.
On this most crucial panel it was hammered home to one and all that to be respected and acceptable to the Israeli elite, one may raise any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for debate one pleases so long as the proposed solution involves the rapid establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. Beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse are those ideas that argue with or deny the viability of this central assumption. Any effort to argue that the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories will be suicidal for the Jewish State or that the setting up of such a state is not Israel's exclusive responsibility, but rather a regional concern as Eitam impertinently suggested, is beyond the pale.
So now we know. Luckily for us, at least there is no chance that the Israeli public will buy into Labor leader Amram Mitzna's view of how that state will be formed. When his turn came on Wednesday to tell his tolerant colleagues how he views the conflict, Mitzna made clear that if elected, he will ensure that the Palestinian state will be established via unconditional Israeli surrender of the territories.
In a performance that would have seemed surrealistic if not preceded by the chastisement of Eitam, Mitzna stood before the forum and declared that his plan is "Unconditional separation, at almost any price." Mitzna explained that we must "cut ourselves off from our reality by creating a border." This is of course highly flammable poppycock. The Labor party is now being led by a man who advocates unreality as a national strategy.
Since the 1970s, Israel has suffered two colossal strategic failures as a result of its elite classes latching onto mistaken conceptions of reality and then quashing debate. The first time this occurred, in the late '60s and early '70s, we were blindsided by the Yom Kippur War. Our elites' view of Israeli invincibility for years prevented them from taking note of Egypt's systematic preparations for war.
The second failed conception was our elites' unsubstantiated determination in 1993 that the PLO was no longer devoted to the destruction of Israel. The failure of the Camp David summit and Oslo's thousand Israeli victims murdered since 1994 as a result of the PLO regime these elites foisted upon the dubious public are testament to the failure of this id e fixe.
One would have hoped that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who in 1973 was called out of military retirement to save Israel from the physical destruction he had unpopularly foreseen, and then returned conclusively from the political desert in 2001 to save Israel from the ravages of Oslo, which he had also foreseen, would have the sense to reject mistaken conceptions. And yet, in his address before the two-time failures at the conference's closing session, Sharon swallowed their Palestinian state conception whole.
Sharon, who has emerged as one of the most effective and charismatic leaders in our history, stood before all assembled Wednesday evening and explained that the Palestinians have lost and will lose absolutely nothing as a result of rejecting the premises of Oslo and conducting a genocidal terrorist war against the State of Israel. All Israeli concessions are irreversible, he said, explaining that the provisional Palestinian state that will soon be created will encompass all the lands Israel handed over in the Oslo agreements as well as additional lands to enable territorial contiguity in Judea and Samaria for the cosmetically reformed Palestinian state.
Arafat, the creator, symbol, commander and enabler of the mass murder of Israelis at the hands of Palestinian war criminals for the past four decades will not be tried before an Israeli or international tribunal for crimes against humanity or even deported. Rather, he will somehow be divested of his powers and stay on as a symbolic dictator.
The only national leader rude enough to puncture the elitist bubble without being heckled was Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. No doubt the crowd's politeness stemmed from the fact that the national conception builders and Ariel Sharon together handily defeated Netanyahu in the Likud leadership primary last week.
In his address before the conferees Netanyahu related the US doctrine of regime change in Iraq to our situation here with the Palestinians. Netanyahu spoke of the need to usher in a process of democratization of Palestinian society like that which the Bush administration foresees in Iraq.
Whereas Sharon devoted his speech to embracing a policy that the US has dictated for Israel to follow, Netanyahu devoted his address to how Israel should adopt elements of US policy towards Iraq in constructing our policies toward the Palestinians. As in a post-Saddam Iraq, a post-Arafat Palestinian Authority must undergo a long process of democratization at the end of which free and fair elections for a new leadership will be held.
According to Netanyahu, this new leadership would be judged not simply on the basis of the presence or absence of terrorism but by its willingness to abandon the demand for a return of Palestinian refugees to the area. "Instead of 'Gaza-Jericho first,' the policy must be [renunciation of the] right of return first," Netanyahu said. Only such a concession, he said, will show that the new Palestinian leadership will have abandoned the aim of destroying the State of Israel.
Netanyahu was careful in hi
s address to be loyal to the prime minister by not reiterating his rejection of the notion of a Palestinian state, which he sincerely believes will today, under the cosmetic reform program that the US has advocated and Sharon has embraced, constitute nothing but a platform for the destruction of Israel. In this Netanyahu behaved properly and responsibly, as befits Sharon's number two.
One can only hope that when forming his next government Ariel Sharon will be similarly responsible. Sharon, who twice foresaw the grave dangers of the elites' misconceptions of reality and twice moved in to shepherd the country out of the catastrophes these misconceptions have caused, must do so again now.
Since taking office, Sharon's political skills have established him as a leader trusted by the rank and file citizenry and acceptable to our elite commissars. If he works constructively with Netanyahu, who has demonstrated his willingness to serve well and loyally as foreign minister in the next government, Sharon will be able to save us for a third time. If he instead moves forward with his embrace of this new misconception he will be bitterly recalled as the man who proved that the only way for a politician to gain legitimacy from our elitists is by leading the country down the conceptual garden path.
Originally published in The Jeusalem Post.