Iran dominated the conversation at Sunday’s second annual Jerusalem Post conference, but as Ehud Olmert and Alan Dershowitz scolded the audience as “part of the problem” and clashed with co-panelists, the substance took a backseat to the onstage drama.
As a journalist who has covered U.S.-Israel relations for several years and as a graduate student in global affairs, the conference, held at New York’s Marriott Marquis hotel, represented an opportunity for me to advance my knowledge in my career and studies. I expected to hear many differing opinions, especially in a ballroom full of Jews, but I did not expect either the audience’s antagonism toward the speakers or the speakers’ toward the audience.
Former heads of Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces and current government ministers and journalists lined up to discuss the most pressing threats to Israel. Of course, Iran topped that list, but the speakers gave mixed views on whether the Islamic Republic’s nuclear quest actually poses a threat to the Jewish state.
Olmert, Israel’s most recent former prime minister, began his keynote address by insisting he would not criticize the Israeli government. He predicted that Syria’s President Bashar Assad would be overthrown – a “leader who kills close to 100,000 of his own people has no right to remain in power” – and gave an optimistic view of Israel’s defensive stance in the region: “There is no serious strategic danger to the wellbeing of the State of Israel. There is not any country at this point that threatens Israel and can carry out a ground war like in the past.”
On Iran, Olmert emphatically disagreed with Netanyahu’s red line, which Netanyahu famously presented to the U.N. General Assembly last year as he showed a diagram representing the Iranian nuclear point-of-no-return.
“I think that they are not there,” he said, adding that Israel has exaggerated not the threat posed by a nuclear Iran but how long it would take for Iran to become that nuclear power, and that Israelis should have more trust in the United States.
President Obama doesn’t want his legacy to be a nuclear Iran, and both the Israelis and the Iranians should take him seriously when he says he will not allow Iran to attain nuclear weapons, Olmert said. “We should work together with the United States, with care, with wisdom, and quietly. We don’t need to embarrass the president with public statements, but rather deal with him intimately even if we disagree with him.”
The crowd applauded, and for a moment it seemed like Olmert was winning them over. Then he turned to the issue of the Palestinians, and the crowd began to turn as well.
The two-state solution is the only solution for a Jewish and democratic state, Olmert said. “The Israeli government can’t eat the cake and have it, too,” he said, apparently forgetting his pledge not to criticize the government.
Addressing assertions that the 1967 lines are indefensible and Israel cannot withdraw, Olmert said that the “borders will be defensible because we know how to deal with terror better when we are in boundaries that the international community absolutely agrees to be ours. Then there is no international criticism. Then there is no U.N. against us. And then we have the [license] to do what needs to be done to protect ourselves.”
Olmert didn’t always agree with President George W. Bush but “never embarrassed him publicly,” he said, in an apparent shot at Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama. Israel has to give up land not out of concern for the Palestinians but because it is “the only way to save the life of your country as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said to a mix of applause and boos.
Olmert called for “painful concessions,” and said that despite Jewish historical ties to the west bank, “we have to split the land to allow [the Palestinians] to have their state.”
The rest of the morning was rather uneventful and continued to focus largely on the question of a nuclear Iran, which is “the most important issue of our time,” said Israeli Minister of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz, adding that a nuclear Iran would be “a terrible threat” to the world. There is still some time, he said, but it is running out. Millions now live under the “tangible nuclear threat from North Korea,” he said. “Iran is not North Korea, it’s worse.”
Amos Yadlin, former head of the IDF military intelligence directorate, questioned what would be more dangerous: allowing a nuclear Iran or bombing Iran.
“The consequences of stopping Iran are less than a nuclear Iran,” he said.
The audience appeared largely to agree with the speakers’ assessments of Iran. During the afternoon panel on “Two states for two peoples?” however, barbs began to fly from the stage.
“Complex problems can’t be solved by booing a former prime minister of Israel or by bumper stickers,” said Harvard Law School’s Professor Alan Dershowitz, author of “The Case for Israel” and “The Case for Peace.”
Negotiations with the Palestinians have been frozen in recent years; the Palestinian Authority has demanded Israel first freeze all settlement construction before it will come back to the table. Obama made a “terrible mistake” when he called for Israel to freeze settlements and for a return to the ’67 lines, Dershowitz said. The professor revealed a plan of his own to get peace talks started – a plan on which he said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas already had signed off on.
Dershowitz called for an immediate return to negotiations without preconditions, but the first issue to be discussed would be settlements. And while talks are ongoing, according to Dershowitz’s plan, Israel would continue building in the settlements closest to Israel, the ones that are expected to become part of Israel, but freeze building in contested areas until their fates are decided in negotiations.
Dershowitz also said that he had asked Abbas if he would agree to forgo taking Israel before the International Criminal Court if negotiations resumed under these circumstances. Abbas told him, he reported, that he would “give it serious consideration.”
When the audience responded with laughter at Abbas’ answer, Dershowitz shot back. “The audience here today is not helpful in resolving complex and serious issues,” he said as the crowd booed. “You are part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
“Shame on you,” jumped in co-panelist Caroline Glick, the Jerusalem Post’s senior contributing editor. “If you want to say that people who devote their lives to defending the Jewish state are illegitimate voices, then what do I care what you have to say?”
The discussion had shifted from how to deal with the Palestinians to how to deal with opinionated Jews. Highly charged political conferences are something I’ve grown accustomed to as a journalist, and it is likely that I would have been disappointed had it unfolded differently. As a student, however, particularly one in the field of international diplomacy, I found myself cringing. I had seen more respectful debates on campus. When Olmert first took to the podium, he joked that he was worried about the response he’d get, given that the crowd had booed him last year. As he left, he sarcastically thanked the crowd for “the friendly, patient restraint, and the supportive manner in which you have received me.”
I wish I could say “You’re welcome.”