President Hosni Mubarak had not yet stepped down late Thursday night when Israel's premier national security gathering in Herzliya ended its 11th annual meetings on Israel's and the region's security. But the now departed president's muddled speech late Thursday night in which he appeared to step aside without formally stepping down was an apt coda to Israel's premier national security gathering in Herzliya this week.
The four days of meetings were an exercise in gloom, as the complexity and enormity of the threats confronting Israel became increasingly evident. Egypt's cyber-revolution—no matter how it turned out, several analysts suggested—could clearly threaten Israel's three-decade-old peace with Egypt. Rather than a quasi-credible Jeffersonian democracy, warned Shlomo Avineri, a former director general of the foreign affairs ministry now teaching at Hebrew University, history taught us that a military dictatorship, or chaos, or a government dominated by the anti-Israeli Muslim Brotherhood, or a "combination" thereof were far more likely alternatives.
Plus, whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood eventually came to power as a result of Egypt's uncertain political transition, several experts argued, any more "democratic" Egyptian government that more closely reflected the views of Egyptians would inevitably be much less friendly toward the Jewish state. It would also most probably be more supportive of Hamas and of Palestinian aspirations in general, less sympathetic toward the American-brokered peace process, and perhaps more reticent about challenging Iran.
While Egypt was the Arab state of most immediate concern, the gathering saw events in Tahrir Square as but a reflection of what analysts here spoke of as an underlying "virus"—the potentially destabilizing yearning for greater freedom in the Arab world, respect for human rights, and tolerance of dissenting views and ethnicities. Only at a gathering of proudly hard-nosed defense experts would such political goals be likened to a dreaded disease.
One of the less gloomy assessments involved Iran, the topic that had deeply depressed and divided last year's gathering. Recent American and Israeli intelligence assessments were suggesting that a combination of tougher sanctions and covert action—the assassination of Iranian scientists; the sabotaging of sophisticated parts and equipment; and Stuxnet, the "virus" that most Herzliya participants seemed to love and for which they privately claimed some pride of ownership—had delayed Iran's nuclear weapons ambition by two to four years. Dov Zakheim, a former American under-secretary of Defense, told the Jerusalem Post and conference participants that Israel did not have to attack Iran to stop its nuclear program. Thanks to its deployment of the Arrow 2 ballistic missile defense system, which relies on U.S. Navy Aegis missile defense ships in the Mediterranean, he said, there was now "less than a one percent chance that an Iranian missile would get through these defenses."
The newly bolstered confidence, however, did not prompt Israelis to stop blaming the Obama Administration for having "wasted" a year, as one Israeli defense analyst put it, by trying to engage and coax Tehran into suspending or stopping its enrichment program and other activities consistent with weapons-making efforts.
The experts also continued blasting the Obama Administration for pressuring Israel to return to the peace table by insisting that Netanyahu freeze all settlement expansion activity, a demand that had forced the Palestinian Authority to adopt the same position.
While several Israelis seemed, if not content, at least willing to tolerate the lack of progress toward renewing peace talks with the Palestinians and Israel's other foes—the status quo was the "worst alternative, except for all the others," asserted Martin Kramer, of the Shalem Center—others warned that the perpetuation of the status quo was unacceptably dangerous for Israel. Those who blamed Israel for failure to make progress on the peace front would use the stalled process as yet another justification for delegitimizing Israel.
One indication of the sorry state of the on-again, mostly off-again, process was the no-show by Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the only senior Palestinian official who was scheduled to speak at the conference.
His was not the only empty chair, however. Defense Secretary Ehud Barak, who had recently quit the Labor Party to form a new center-Zionist faction called Independence in order to keep his thankless Defense post, flew to Washington to brief senior American officials on the Mubarak mess. Nor did Bibi Netanyahu attend—the first time in the conference's 11-year history that an Israeli prime minister has not addressed the gathering. Israelis grumbled that Bibi felt that too many of the conference sponsors were hostile to him and his political agenda.
Senior officials who did attend were virtually unanimous in denouncing the Israeli government, arguing that Israel's political system had become utterly dysfunctional. Weakness, selfishness, and greed jeopardized the state itself, warned Tzipi Livni, chairperson of the Kadima party, the former minister of foreign affairs, and the head of the not-so-loyal opposition.
Much of the conference gossip focused on Israel's inability to take tough decisions given its corruption and increasingly bitter partisan divisions, a failure that has rarely been bandied about quite so openly.
At the session's end, Uriel Reichman, the president of the IDC Herzliya, lamented the tragic deaths of three IDC graduates. Yossi Dahan had volunteered to serve in the paratroopers, where he was a first lieutenant. He helped support his family by working as a night watchman at a house in Kfar Shmaryahu. One night two motorcyclists drove by the house and sprayed it with bullets, killing Dahan. His killers were never caught. He was a victim of organized crime, Reichman charged, crime that had penetrated even high levels of government. He named no names; he didn't have to.
The second victim, Roi Assaf, was on summer break in Sinai when he was killed by Muslim terrorists. He was 28 years old. He had done volunteer work in his hometown of Kfar Saba.
Nir Katz, 26, was a computer science major. He was killed in 2009 at the gay community center in Tel Aviv where he did volunteer work. His crime was being gay, Reichman said.
All three of these young men, Reichman said, embodied the spirit of Israel and had been killed for naught. Violence, he said, had become part of Israeli life. Israel needed not only a new system of government, one that was not paralyzed by religious and ideological divisions. It also needed a less violent, more moral and caring society.
It needed to rein in its own "fundamentalism," he said, by refusing to permit groups who cared little for Israeli values to control the country's education system and live off of tax-payer financial support. It needed citizens who would fight for their path and for a just state. It needed to recapture its vision.