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Herzliya conference 2015 – Israel’s foremost annual global policy gathering

The Annual Herzliya Conference which takes place at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) is Israel’s foremost annual global policy gathering, drawing together the most senior Israeli and international participants from government, business and academia to address pressing national, regional and global issues. I was very fortunate to attend this year’s conference on behalf of the South African Zionist Federation (Cape Council) which took place between the 7-9th of June. This year, the Conference agenda covered a broad array of issues ranging from nuclear proliferation and the Middle East peace process to world finance and energy security. The conference is held under academic auspices in a non-partisan, informal atmosphere, which facilitates and encourages an informed debate on emerging challenges and policy responses. Alongside plenary sessions, senior officials and experts convene in roundtable sessions for in-depth discussions on pertinent subjects, to flesh-out the issues in a frank and off-the-record exchange, allowing for an authoritative assessment of strategies and policy alternatives.

The Herzliya Conference welcomed many notable participants and I wish I was able to mention all of them, but because of space limitations I will mention only a few of them.

At a session entitled “Towards a Two-State Solution or a One-State Eventuality?” held on the first day of the Conference, Israeli Minister of Education and Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Chairman of “Habayit Hayehudi” party, MK Naftali Bennett, addressed the issue of Boycott Divest Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Bennett said: “Let it be clear to any company or organization that is considering boycotting us: we will hit back, we will attack our attackers, and we will boycott our boycotters. The boycott weapon is a double-edged sword. We will no longer remain silent. ”

“The Orange incident is a watershed moment” said Bennett. “It is the first time that Israel and its allies fight back. A loud and strong action of Jews and non-Jews around the world resulted in a total upheaval of Orange’s policy. Many of our friends cried out against Orange and demanded to disconnect from their services. And the pressure worked. Orange receded and apologized.”

Bennett added: “Up until today it was very easy to hit Israel, because you didn’t pay a price. No longer. The state of Israel has moved from the defence to the offence. There are tens of millions of Israel supporters around the world – Jews and non-Jews, and they have considerable buying power and boycott power, and the way they stood by us this time, so they will in the future.”

On the second day of the conference at a roundtable discussion entitled “Islam and BDS in Europe: A Strategic Threat?”, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth discussed the issue of new anti-Semitism and its manifestation with the BDS movement, claiming that “Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism” and calling on Europe to support Jews in opposition against this new form of racism. Sacks argued that we are facing today a new development of anti-Semitism. If in the past Jews were hated because of religion, and later race, “Today they are hated for the new nation state.” said Sacks.

He continued explaining that “The assault on Jews has had to justify itself in the highest cannon of authority.” In the Middle Ages religion was the highest form of authority, and in the 19th century it was science, argued Sacks. Therefore, “the scientific study, that today we know is a pseudo-science of race and social Darwinism was used to justify hate against Jews.”

“Now, human rights are the highest form of authority. For this reason it is used against Israel. The new anti-Semitism has to be spoken in the language of human rights.” said Sacks.

Sacks concluded: “We need to make it clear that if Europe is not safe for Jews, it is not safe for them either. It is an assault on freedom. We must not be left to face this battle alone.”

In his keynote address, given at a session entitled “The Quest for Leadership and Vision”, Nicolas Sarkozy, Former President of France and “Les Republicains” President, discussed different issues Israel is currently facing as a key player and a friend of France in the Middle East. In his speech, Sarkozy addressed the topic of BDS against Israel, saying: “This boycott is unacceptable and illegal – today as it will be tomorrow. To boycott the start-up nation makes no sense – not political, not moral and not financial sense.”

Regarding the holocaust, which he addressed in its Hebrew name, the “Shoah”, Sarkozy said: “The silence of the nations, as to why these crimes were committed, is a blemish on humanity. We all have a debt towards the Jewish people. The only way to repay this debt is to keep up the need for security of the Jewish people. When Jews are attacked for being Jewish the French nation is attacked.”

Sarkozy claimed that anti-Semitism is not only a Jewish problem, saying that “Mankind has not yet understood that the faith of Jews is the forerunner of what will happen. The fight for the security of the Jews is the fighting for all that will happen in the world.”

Sarkozy continued in a discussion of anti-Semitism in France: “There is anti-Semitism in France, but it is not an anti-Semitic country. I will not allow demonstrations in France calling for the killing of Jews. I cannot accept that one Jew will leave France out of fear. They can leave as a cultural choice, but not out of fear. I will not tolerate this. We have to fight that by political means.”

He concluded the discussion on the subject of anti-Semitism, saying: “It is too easy to say I am not an anti-Semite but I do not like Israel. That is too easy to hide anti-Semitism behind critique.”

According to Ron Prosor, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations, Israel continues to be singled out at the UN at an unprecedented rate but the instability in the region is leading to new alignments that could work in Israel’s favour.

Prosor, speaking on the final day of the 2015 Herzliya Conference, said there was “daily terror” directed at Israel at the UN. “No matter what your political views, there is a process of demonization and delegitimization that exists at the UN,” he said. But there is also a change in behavior among several states, particularly in response to Iran and Syria.

“Saudi Arabia’s interests, right now, overlap with the interests of the State of Israel,” he said. “There is a rope around the neck of Saudi Arabia and others, and it’s not connected to the Palestinian issue. We need to take advantage of it for our own purposes.”

Prosor also said that Israeli innovations, particularly those related to developing countries, are being recognized at the UN. “There is a curve of supply and demand at the UN, just like in economics,” he said. “There is a demand for demonizing Israel, but there is also a demand for Israeli know-how, and we have the supply.” Prosor said that means introducing resolutions, even if the hope of passage is low. He noted that one resolution was eventually passed with a big majority and a delegate stood up and said that while he had much to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the work that Israel was doing in Africa deserves to be commended.

On Israeli-U.S. relations in the United Nations, the Ambassador was adamant that the cooperation between the two allies continue to remains strong “The Americans are on the frontline with us every day at the UN. They are standing shoulder to shoulder (with us) on a daily basis.”

MK Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s Minister of Justice discussed the Justice department’s reaction to the BDS, as well as the need for Israel to make new friends in a changing Middle East. Shaked addressed the issue of BDS against Israel: “These days, the entire government of Israel and the international department at the Ministry of Justice specifically, is fighting against a series of organizations who would like to hurt Israel, its independence, prosperity and its just path.”

“A mistaken and misleading international media campaign is taking place these days, creating the impression that doing business with Israeli companies operating beyond the Green Line is illegal. This argument is fundamentally flawed, as time and time again it was decided by different judicial bodies in multiple countries around the world that companies conducting business in the West Bank does not violate international law.”

Shaked said that “I have instructed the international department at the ministry of Justice to prepare a plan of legal steps against the BDS movement. Also in this arena we will move from the defence to offense. For every boycott we will fight back. We have the purchasing power to resist boycotts, and we have the legal power.”

The turmoil in the Middle East presents an opportunity for new alliances that can help bring about a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an hour long address at the closing of the 2015 Herzliya Conference.

“I committed to two states at Bar Ilan,” he said. “The solution as I see it is a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state,” Netanyahu said.

“The Palestinians expect us to recognize a Palestinian state. But they won’t recognize a Jewish state for the Jewish people. That’s what we want. Mutual recognition,” he added.

Netanyahu said the crisis engulfing much of the Arab world presents an opportunity for Israel to form new alliances. “The trepidation of the Sunni states towards Iran on the one hand, and Isis on the other, creates potential for cooperation,” he said. “Perhaps it could help resolve the problem we want to resolve with the Palestinians, because I don’t want a one state solution,” he said.

He also spoke about the danger of an Arab arms race in response to a nuclear Iran. Some states will seek nuclear weapons of their own, he said, while each of them will substantially increase their stocks of conventional weapons. It won’t make Israel safer,” he said, regarding the emerging nuclear deal with Iran. He said he’s spoken to Arab leaders, and “nobody believes that this deal will block Iran’s path to the bomb, or many bombs.”

Netanyahu also noted that Iran has been involved in “cyber-attacks on Saudi Arabia, and even the United States”.

Netanyahu also outlined an economic development program, with the goal of raising the Israeli economic growth rate to 5%.

The program is based on developing new markets in areas such as China and India, developing new products in areas such as cyber security, improving telecommunications and transportation for greater connectivity online and between regions of Israel, and developing Israel’s natural energy resources.

“There is no security without a strong economy,” he said. “And there is no prosperity without growth.”

Preceding Netanyahu, Former Prime Minister and Former Minister of Defense Lt. Gen. (res.) Ehud Barak discussed the issue of the international legitimacy of Israel and its challenge when facing the BDS movement.

Barak argued that only the core of the BDS movement is against Israel for what it is, regardless the actions it takes. “We must today create a barrier between the millions in the free world and the hard nucleus of BDS. A government that operates decisively to separate from the Palestinians shifts the attention to the Palestinians.”

“International legitimacy is fundamental source of power for Israel. Had Israel been willing to concentrate the building only in settlement blocks and stop it outside of them, it would have fundamentally changed Israel’s situation. The lack of distinction between settlement blocks and outside them is very dangerous. The building beyond this settlement blocks essentially endangers the settlements themselves.”

Barak also called for a regional arrangement, including with the moderate Arab countries, The Palestinians and Israel. “Against the Palestinians, Israel can mostly give. In front of the entire Arab world, Israel can receive a lot. This is the source of a great opportunity of a regional arrangement.”

The IDC Herzliya is a dream realized; an academic institution that changed the face of higher education in Israel and became a successful, pioneering model and a source of inspiration. As a graduate from the IDC myself, I can only say that the years I spent in this respected institution were some of the best years of my life and it was an honour to return for such an outstanding conference.



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