I was still at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv when my mobile rang. Rottem, the head of the news department, asked me how I was doing. ‘They opened up my belly last night,’ I grumbled, ‘took my appendix out, closed me up with staple pins and left.’ It hurt. ‘Well, you sound like you’re all right now,’ he said rather bluntly. ‘I’m sure you can make it to the Herzliya Conference in two days’ time. There’s a panel about Iran or Lebanon or something from your field, and I want you to cover it.’ Before I could decide on an answer – this was an attractive offer for a beginner journalist – he went on: ‘Actually, I’ve put your name down on the list.’ I looked at the nurse coming towards me and asked for a painkiller.
Two days later, I woke up in my small apartment in Tel Aviv, and while struggling to put on my shoes, cursed the moment I failed to say no. The bottom right of my abdomen was aching. My rendezvous with Israel’s biggest strategic threats looked like a very bad idea. I could not have believed that by the end of the day I would have rather had open-heart surgery than listen to any further analysis of the Middle East.
Inside the taxi I reopened the conference kit that had been emailed to me. It was the first time I had been to the event, but as an Israeli I knew its importance. Since the first conference in 2000, this annual meeting of Israeli and foreign politicians, academics, military experts and businessmen has become one of the most prestigious platforms for delivering political points and geostrategic messages. In 2003 Ariel Sharon unveiled the Gaza disengagement plan at Herzliya and since then the significance of the event has only grown. This year the conference was to be broadcast live on Israeli news sites, and attended by at least ten government ministers, including Prime Minister Olmert. Forty-two well-known American figures – among them, the deputy secretary of defense, the under-secretary of state for political affairs and the secretary of education – were to take part. Only two Palestinian citizens of Israel were invited, even though Palestinians make up 20 per cent of the country’s population.
On the front page of the kit was a brief survey of the subjects that were going to be considered. The overall theme is always ‘The Balance of Israel’s National Security’, and Professor Uzi Arad, the director and founder, made the point that this year’s conference had been convened ‘amidst the repercussions of the campaign in Lebanon, regional and international developments, and their implications for Israel’s security and diplomatic postures’ (my emphasis). In an interview with Haaretz recorded before the conference but published after it ended, Arad said that ‘the Israeli left will need to realise that it makes up only 50 per cent of the conference, unlike the 90 per cent presence it has in any other event.’ A former Mossad senior official and Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser, Arad went on to insist that ‘my individual political views are one thing, and what is happening at the conference is another.’ A true Voltairean.
The taxi driver said we had arrived. We were at the main gate of the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, the first private university in Israel. The courtyard was empty, and the gatekeeper told us that if we were looking for the Herzliya Conference it was taking place at the Daniel Hotel. Slightly embarrassed, I turned to the taxi driver and asked him to take us to the correct location, a five-star hotel on the Herzliya seashore, one of Israel’s wealthiest spots.
I took advantage of the extra time in the taxi, and the heavy traffic of Herzliya’s mornings, to get a better understanding of what I was supposed to cover. The panel was entitled ‘The Changing Paradigm of Israeli-Palestinian Relations in the Shadow of Iran and the War against the Hizbullah’. The session was to be chaired by a former Israeli ambassador to the UN, Dore Gold, who is currently president of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs. I vaguely remembered coming across one of his books as an undergraduate at Tel Aviv University: Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism. The second speaker was Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton University. I knew his work well – who didn’t? The title of one of his books encapsulates his views: What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. Clash of Civilisations: here we come. The third speaker was Moshe Yaalon, the former Israeli chief of staff. After his retirement in 2005 he told Haaretz that the Palestinians were still looking for ways to exterminate Israel; therefore Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders would never solve the conflict. It was Yaalon who introduced the notion – these are his words – of searing deep ‘into the consciousness of the Palestinians that they are a defeated people’. He now works at the Shalem Centre, an education and research institution that is identified with the Israeli right and American neo-conservatives.
I assumed that the panel would include at least one speaker who thought differently from his colleagues and started to feel bad for the fourth speaker. Poor fellow, I thought, facing those three. I read on. The poor fellow was revealed to be James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA. I knew nothing about him. I googled his name and found out that in July Woolsey had called on the US to bomb Syria. My stitches started hurting again. I didn’t have time to catch my breath: the driver told me to pick myself up because we were in front of the hotel. I paid and limped towards the entrance.
The hotel lobby was beautifully arranged. The room was wide with large windows overlooking the Herzliya beach: the view dazzled the eyes. I went over to the journalists’ stand, gave them my best smile and nonchalantly pulled out my press card. A feeling of importance came over me. The world outside was forgotten. The woman behind the desk checked my details, smiled back at my smiling face and gave me my conference tag. I was accepted. I was then allowed to climb to the second floor, where a large buffet was on offer to anyone who hadn’t lost their appetite at the prospect of the ‘Shadow of Iran and the War against the Hizbullah’. I decided to stick to my job and went straight to the conference hall, leaving the tempting croissants behind. I found myself a good seat, close to the stage but not too close, and felt ready to hear how threatening Ahmadinejad’s shadow was. More and more people crowded in and eventually filled every corner of the hall.
Dore Gold was the first speaker. ‘John Negroponte,’ he began, ‘US director of national intelligence, said a week ago that in the Middle East, Iran and its neighbours see a strategic move. The influence of Iran is rising beyond its nuclear programme. The fall of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, the increase in oil incomes, the victory of Hamas in the elections and the perceived victory of Hizbullah in its war against Israel increased Iran’s shadow in the region.’ According to Gold, this ‘shift’ had been sensed by the researchers of his institution as early as the beginning of 2006. He said that, due to this ‘historic turning point’, Israel and the West needed to re-evaluate their positions. The paradigm that claims that the source of instability in the region is the Israeli-Arab conflict, and that solving this would bring stability to the region, was no longer valid. A new paradigm had to be found: a new paradigm for a new era.
The crowd applauded. It isn’t every day that Israelis and their American supporters get to hear that they have nothing to do with the instability of the region. The US invasion of Iraq? Israel’s forty-year occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip? Israel’s continual refusal to reply to the Syrians’ proposals for negotiations? All of these are part of the past. Fortunately, a new demon had been found to take everybody’s sins on himself: Ahmadinejad.
Professor Bernard Lewis spoke next. It was the first time I had heard him speak. He started by explaining that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of a period that had begun two hundred years before, with the landing of Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces in Egypt. Nowadays, Lewis said, ‘the outside powers are not as interested in the Middle East as they were.’ This meant that the region had returned to its old patterns. The crowd held its breath: Islam’s desire to conquer the West was in the air. Lewis confirmed it. He said that the Muslims’ first attempt to conquer the world took place in Europe in the eighth century, and the second took place when the Ottomans occupied Constantinople in the 15th century. ‘What we see today,’ he concluded, ‘is the third attempt, with aspirations that it will be third time lucky . . . We see in Muslim writings that the struggle has already begun.’ Lewis coughed, and continued with his forecast. ‘My Iranian friends tell me that Ahmadinejad might be crazy, but he is not stupid. He really means what he says, and he really believes in an apocalyptic message.’ Lewis left no room for doubt: there is a widespread understanding, he said, that a religious war between Gog and Magog is on its way.
The professor returned to his seat. I held my pen tight, as if it was my last friend on earth. After a few seconds I started breathing. The crowd was still applauding. I couldn’t understand why such a distinguished professor was not willing to lift the fog over Iran by supplying even the most basic facts. Why didn’t he mention that Ahmadinejad has no control over Iran’s nuclear programme, or its army, or any of its security forces, or any of its strategic plans; and that even if he was both stupid and crazy he would still be unable to make these kinds of decision? Why did Lewis, an expert on the Middle East, not find it appropriate to mention that power over Iran lies entirely in the hands of the supreme leader Ali Khamenei? Was it because such an explanation might put paid to the unity of the panel or stand in the way of the audience’s notion that a pre-emptive attack was needed? We wanted a war so much.
James Woolsey stepped up to the podium. He was sharp, focused and serious, exactly as a former head of the CIA should be. He went straight to the point and very soon touched on the audience’s most sensitive point: the Holocaust. The Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese and Syrian ‘challenges’, according to Woolsey, should correctly and jointly be thought of as ‘Islamist totalitarianism’, the ‘defeat of which I believe is the great challenge of our age, just as the defeat of Nazism and the defeat of Communism were’. There were sparkling eyes in the audience, and he was heading for glory. ‘Destroying Israel and the US is the essence of the Iranian state,’ Woolsey said, ‘and trying to convince Iran to stop it is like trying to convince Hitler not to be anti-semitic.’ The crowd was now his. Woolsey didn’t lose his momentum. ‘I agree with Dr Gold,’ he said, as he looked over at the panellists. ‘Wahhabi Islam, al-Qaida and Vilayat e-Faqih cannot be treated individually. Those who say that they will not co-operate with one another are as wrong as those who claimed that the Nazis and Communists would not co-operate.’
The audience couldn’t contain its excitement and started clapping riotously. Woolsey kept his grip. ‘We should listen to what they say,’ he said, silencing the crowd, ‘just like we needed to listen to Hitler.’ An attentive silence spread through the room. ‘We must not accept totalitarian regimes,’ he said, ‘and we should not tolerate a nuclear weapon capability for Iran . . . If we use force, we should use it decisively, not execute some surgical strike on a single or two or three facilities. We need to destroy the power of the Vilayat e-Faqih if we are called upon and forced to use force against Iran.’ Next Woolsey took his audience to Syria. ‘It is a shame,’ he said, that Israel and the US failed to ‘participate in a move against Syria last summer’. He paused. ‘Finally,’ he said, looking into his audience’s eyes, ‘we must not forget who we are. We, as Jews, Christians and others, are heirs of the tradition deriving from Judaism.’ Woolsey chose an American and Jewish ending. ‘Elijah had it right in confronting Ahab, and Thomas Jefferson had it right in the one sentence of his that circles your head as you stand in front of his statue in Washington DC: “I have sworn on the altar of almighty God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”’
The audience went wild; Woolsey had outlined the ultimate battle between good and evil and they were on the side of good. Someone rose to his feet. And someone else, and someone else, and someone else. I looked at the audience, amazed. They were cheering as one. This wasn’t funny. Israel is the strongest country in the Middle East, the only country in the region with nuclear power, the only state that co-operates unquestioningly with the world’s only superpower. Why do we have such a short memory? Why don’t we remember the circumstances that led to the invasion of Iraq and the 600,000 Iraqis who have died over the last four years? Why are Israelis so eager to fight Syria, when Damascus seems to want to sit down and talk? How can the nation that suffered immeasurably in the Holocaust let people use the memory of six million Jews as an instrument to gain international support?
The next speaker allowed me to focus on something other than the Holocaust. Happily, Yaalon, the former Israeli chief of staff, wasn’t saying anything new, so I could relax a bit. Like his colleagues, he said that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending the Israeli occupation would not bring stability to the region. Then he said that the Palestinians had agreed to the Oslo Accords because they wanted to use them as a Trojan Horse – as an excuse to enter negotiations and then fight for more. I was reminded of David Ben-Gurion, who accepted the partition plan in 1947, but told his followers it was only a step towards gaining more territory. Yaalon went on. He said Palestinian children were being brought up on ‘hatred and death’. He said: ‘the conflict after the 1979 revolution in Iran turned into a clash of civilisations. This is the Third World War.’ Surprisingly, the Israeli ex-general had a solution and unsurprisingly it had a lot to do with armies. ‘If the West yearns for life,’ he said, ‘it cannot run away from a confrontation with Jihadi Islam, and – first and foremost – with the Iranian regime.’ He had no doubts: ‘There will not be an inner change in Iran without external pressure.’ A controversial claim: what about the students in Iran burning photos of Ahmadinejad? What about the victory of the reformists at the last municipal elections? Or the fact that Iran is the only country in the Middle East apart from Israel to hold regular democratic elections and where the leadership changes every few years?
Yaalon’s speech didn’t go down as well as Woolsey’s, but he, too, had given the audience what they wanted: yes, there would be a war with Iran. Yes, it is Israel’s only option. And no, Israel has nothing to do with the continuing crises in the Middle East. But the audience’s applause still didn’t make sense. If a war with Iran broke out, wouldn’t Israel be in great danger? I could understand American listeners cheering: a missile from Iran could never hit their houses, but why are Israelis walking towards (another) military confrontation without asking themselves what the consequences might be? And without fear?
The chairman announced that the time had come for questions from the floor. I felt a bit dizzy when I stood up and headed towards the queue for the microphone. I remember hearing someone ask when exactly the war would start, and why had Israel failed to win the war in Lebanon; there were other questions that might as well have been asked by the panellists themselves. I waited for my turn, and when it came I started shivering. What the hell am I doing, I wondered. I imagined being crushed by the mighty lords of war sitting in front of me.
I waited a few seconds and said: ‘My name is Yoni Mendel and I am from Walla News Israel. I would like to ask Mr Woolsey a question, because it deals with US foreign policy.’ Woolsey looked at me, and I considered forgetting about my question and instead putting in a request to be sent to Iraq or Iran or Vietnam. I tried to keep focused and said: ‘The four of you represent the same point of view.’ Four pairs of eyes were now staring at me. ‘But there are also other views. Professor David Menashri, the head of the Tel Aviv Iranian Studies Department, and Ephraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad, have argued on various occasions that a dialogue with Iran, or even a secret negotiation channel with the US, could be the solution to the crisis.’ Chairman Gold interrupted. ‘What is your question?’ he said loudly. I hesitated and said: ‘As one can see, since the US included Iran in the Axis of Evil in 2001 the opposite of what it intended has taken place: the reformists of Khatami lost power, the conservatives of Ahmadinejad gained power and the nuclear programme was speeded up.’ I heard Gold’s voice over mine: ‘Could you shorten your question, our next guest, the minister of defence, is waiting outside.’ I tried not to think about the minister. ‘Well, the question is: don’t you think that American policy is not helping to halt the Iranian nuclear programme, but contributes to the exact opposite?’
There was giggling around me. Woolsey didn’t hesitate. ‘I think that’s nonsense,’ he said. The crowd applauded: an easy knockout. My stitches felt as though they were about to explode. Woolsey went on: ‘I think that there was a window of opportunity between Khatami’s taking office and the spring of 1995 when one could responsibly hold the view that he might be embarked on major changes for Iran. But the crackdown came in the spring of 1995: students were killed, editors were killed, prisoners were tortured, and since then there has been no reasonable chance of working with anything approaching a moderate Iranian regime.’ ‘And today,’ he concluded, ‘I don’t believe that anybody who knows anything about Iran, frankly, believes that serious negotiations are possible.’
I remember hearing applause. I wanted to ask Mr Woolsey what he meant by the time between Khatami’s taking office and the spring of 1995, when Khatami took office in 1997 and retired in 2005. I wondered if by the ‘spring of 1995’ he meant the American decision to impose sanctions on Iran, and if yes, how come the ‘window of opportunity’ was shut then, when Khatami, the moderate president of Iran, came to power two years later and was there for eight years. I wanted to make it clear to the audience that Ahmadinejad has served as Iran’s president for the last year and eight months and not for the last 12 years, as they might be confused. I wanted to tell them that when Iran elected a local democrat and reformist, Muhammad Mussadeq, in 1953, to replace the US puppet shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, and to end US control over Iranian oil, the CIA used covert operations to overthrow him and to bring back the hated and unelected shah; but it was too late for me to say anything.
Chairman Gold sent us all out for a short break before the speech from the minister of defence. I tried to avoid the stares of the audience; they wanted to see close up what a lunatic Israeli Jew looked like. One of them asked me: ‘Did you ever study history?’ I told him about my master’s degree in history. He said: ‘If you had been studying properly you would have seen the similarities between Iran and the Nazis.’ I was glad he hadn’t been marking my exams and headed for the exit. Someone from an organisation called Demography held me up to say that he too was against the occupation and against the separation wall, ‘but also against the Arabs’. I didn’t reply. I was a minority of one, but I wasn’t ready to be eaten alive. I left the hall, without even saying goodbye to the lovely croissants, and ran outside for some fresh air. I phoned my boss and shamefully reported that among a pro-war audience with pro-war experts in a pro-war country I had asked a stupid question. Rottem told me not to worry too much. I was cheered to think I hadn’t lost my job.
On my way back in the taxi I thought about the term ‘groupthink’, which tries to explain how a state of mind can penetrate all levels of society and bring about a general stagnation in thinking. When Israeli sociologists tried to understand why Israel hadn’t been ready for the 1973 war, they coined the term ‘the conception’: all levels of society were under the sway of a ‘conception’ based on the euphoria of 1967. It felt to me as though the Israeli and American peoples were now under the sway of another ‘conception’. It is not categorically wrong – Iran might indeed achieve a nuclear capability – but there is no discussion in Israel about ways to deal with it and whether there is an alternative to confrontation. An honest debate, with more than one point of view, is the minimum required before reaching critical conclusions. But current Israeli discourse – Israeli common sense – does not allow for dissenting voices, or take into account inconvenient facts. Israeli politics, the academy, the security establishment, and even the press: they all think alike. There is only one message. Two days after the panel discussion, when Prime Minister Olmert addressed the conference, he confirmed it: ‘We will not let the Iranian regime put the life of the Israeli people under threat,’ he said. ‘We have absolute freedom of action to defend our vital interests. And we will not hesitate to use it.’ Three days earlier, Senator John Edwards, a candidate for the Democratic nomination in next year’s presidential election, reassured the Herzliya Conference that the US, whether Democrat or Republican, is on the same warpath as Israel. ‘Under no circumstance,’ he said, ‘can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons . . . Iran must know that the world won’t back down . . . We need to keep all options on the table. Let me reiterate – all options must remain on the table.’
The Herzliya Conference has enormous significance in Israeli society. Is it because we worship anything that has to do with the security establishment? Or maybe because ‘strategic threats’ – and Israel even has a minister devoted to them – are the only thing that can unite a society that is torn apart by so many differences? Are we really under continual threat, or are we perpetuating the situation by letting our generals and security-minded leadership dictate a course of action that is about much more than security? This is the way Israel has always thought. The Herzliya Conference demonstrates Israel’s core belief that the US is its guardian angel, an angel that is never wrong, whose use of force will eventually make Israel a safer place.
I was depressed not only because of what was said but also because of what wasn’t said, and depressed for those who were not saying it. Out of more than 160 participants in the conference, there were only 17 women. Of the two Palestinian citizens of Israel who took part, only one, Aida Touma-Sliman, a member of the Follow-Up Committee for the Arab Population of Israel, contributed a different message. The other, Ramzi Halabi from Tel Aviv University, is a Druze who has reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Israeli army. The worst of it is that – among the audience, the media, the participants, the politicians, the academics – almost no one felt that something or someone was absent. There was no fault found in a conference that excluded communities because they were not Jewish, American, militant or manly enough. How can an audience go on clapping their hands at a discussion that is discussion-free? On the eve of a war with Iran, a war with unknown consequences, Israelis refuse even to consider an option that does not involve violence. A country that has lived by the sword refuses to question it, even when its own future is at risk. I think of the frog and scorpion story. I do not know who the frog is here, but I do have a strong sense that Israel is playing the scorpion. That it cannot stop behaving the way it has always behaved, even when this is against its own interests.
A postscript. Out of the eight questions asked of the panel only seven were published on the official Herzliya Conference internet site. Guess who didn’t get lucky.