Monday, January 23, 2006

Wrong Podium

‘A speech,” Ronald Reagan’s wordsmith Peggy Noonan wrote, “is poetry: cadence, rhythm, imagery, sweep!”

If so, don’t Israelis deserve to get their history-making speeches from the Knesset’s podium? Should not parliament be where a prime minister announces major policy shifts and where opposition leaders argue that the premier’s approach is wrongheaded?

These questions come to mind as the Sixth Annual Herzliya Conference gets under way, sponsored by the Institute for Policy Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

The conference has become Israel’s own version of high-powered “retreats” such as the Aspen Institute conclave, where America’s elites gather, and the World Economic Forum assemblage at Davos, which brings together top-ranking international movers and shakers.

And that it is a draw for distinguished domestic and international policy makers, top-tier business leaders, illustrious academics and superb journalists is plainly a good thing. In the course of three days at this seaside resort, bankers, Diaspora leaders, military strategists, Knesset members, settlement activists, former ambassadors, Nobel Prize winners and cabinet members will have shared their thoughts on “The Balance of Israel’s National Security.”

The Herzliya Conference is by no means the only prominent gathering of its kind. Various big-league meetings over the year address crucial issues ranging from poverty, social welfare and Negev development to minority rights and easing religious tensions.

It has become a reality of Israeli political life that no less attention is paid to speeches made at such conferences than to those from the Knesset podium. And so, knowing his remarks would carry added weight, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz used his appearance at Herzliya on Saturday night to warn Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: “I suggest you take a look... and see what happened to others who tried to wipe out the Jewish people... they brought destruction to their own people.”

The Iranian-born Mofaz concluded: “I know the people of Iran and they should know that Ahmadinejad’s policies will bring disaster upon them.”

Yet – wouldn’t such a warning send an even sharper message delivered during a specially-called Knesset session?

Opposition leaders also use the Herzliya setting to make their case to the electorate, and the world. For instance, during his dinner speech last night, Likud Party Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu said the security fence should be moved deeper into the West Bank.

Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz is expected to use his speech tonight to clarify his party’s position on Jerusalem.

But it’s Tuesday evening’s anticipated appearance by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – coming on the eve of Palestinian elections – that is expected to garner the most attention.
Olmert, reportedly, will not advocate additional unilateral West Bank withdrawals.

Instead he will demand that the Palestinian Authority comply with its road map obligations requiring it to disband armed militias and dismantle the infrastructure that facilitates terrorism. Such a crackdown, it is understood, would be Kadima’s demand before reopening negotiations with the newly-elected Palestinian leadership.

In an ideal world, a head of government should use parliament – and not an academic conference – to unveil his policies and reveal, for example, Israel’s stance on a post-election role for Hamas and under what circumstances unilateralism would again become a policy option.

It was at the December 2003 Herzliya Conference, though, that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon first announced: “If within a few months the Palestinians have not made reciprocal steps, we will take unilateral action.”

And it was at the Caesarea Conference in June 2005 that former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised not to resign because of his opposition to disengagement.

Our problem is not that Israel’s top echelon flocks to Herzliya once a year. What we find disconcerting is the rarity with which the country’s leadership engages and attempts to persuade its citizens regarding the wisdom of its policies.

What’s needed is a change of mind-set. We would like to see Israel’s next prime minister – and opposition leader – making a point of using the Knesset (and regular, formal news conferences) to lay out their policies.

Effective leadership demands more than an annual Big Speech, no matter how effective the setting – or the cadence, rhythm, and imagery.

– Jerusalem Post Editorial, January 23, 2005

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