For the past seven years, Israel-policy wonks and their international counterparts have met at the seaside resort of Herzliya for the annual Conference Series on the Balance of Israel’s National Security. Israeli powerbrokers often jockey for time and space on the program.
In 2005, former premier Ariel Sharon announced the Gaza disengagement plan in the closing “Prime Minister’s Address.”
In 2006, during Israel’s election, a parade of Israeli party leaders addressed the group, along with an appearance by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who was in Israel to monitor impending Palestinian elections.
In 2007, with America’s election campaign under way, personal or electronic visits were made by Republican and Democratic politicians.
The conference is also a good opportunity to see the media at work, which show up in large numbers in search of the next story. Casual conversations occur at breakfast or in the lobby between reporters and attendees.
It presents a good opportunity to go beyond the printed and broadcast word to see what those watching Israel — and reporting about it to the world — have to say and how they say it.
At this year’s conference, I was stopped by a BBC radio reporter who was soliciting opinions on the scandal involving Israel’s president. “Should he resign?” asked the reporter.
“I’m not sure,” I replied. “I don’t know the facts.”
“Nice to be able to sit on the fence,” the BBC’s seeker of truth responded.
“Sorry,” I added, “but in my country, someone is innocent until proven guilty.”
He was obviously disappointed by my wanting to examine the evidence before voicing an opinion. That’s apparently not a requirement for the BBC in its coverage of accusations of Israelis’ transgressions.
Another foreign correspondent observed that the Israelis seemed to worry a lot more than he thought they should, expressing his view of this conference which, admittedly, had a strong focus on threats emanating from a potentially nuclear Iran. It followed a year marked by a difficult fight with Hezbollah and a popularly elected Palestinian government that repeatedly has refused to recognize Israel.
As the aphorism goes, even paranoids have enemies. One would think an objective correspondent would agree that Israelis had some justification for concern, even if the proposed solutions were subject to dispute.
If Iran had a nuclear device, this journalist observed, it would not be an existential threat to Israel. He also dismissed the disruptions caused by Hezbollah’s far-less-lethal, Iranian-supplied missiles last summer. I presented the argument that three well- placed nuclear devices, exploding in Israel’s population centers, would devastate the country. Some have proposed that even the threat of nuclear attack would strangle investment and cause the majority of Jews to flee their homeland.
But, the journalist countered, the Iranians may have only one bomb — and the 40,000 resulting deaths would not be the end of the state.
As Iran’s influential Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani observed in 2001, “If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel — but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.”
It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine any responsible government considering 40,000 fatalities — particularly in a nation the size of Israel — acceptable. And, until this conference, it was hard to imagine a legitimate mainstream media figure dismissing 40,000 dead as just another possible outcome.
John R. Cohn is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University. He writes frequently about the Middle East and recently returned from Israel where he participated in the Herzliya Conference on the Balance of Israel’s National Security. John R. Cohn is member of the Board of Directors of SPME.