HERZLIYA, Israel, Jan. 23 (JTA) — Lawmakers mixed with diplomats, former spies and businesspeople as Israel’s elite gathered once again for the annual Herzliya Conference. In its seventh year, the conference focused on external conflicts such as the struggle with the Palestinians, last summer’s war with Lebanon and future fears of a showdown with Iran, and internal threats such as corruption and poor governance.
“We have almost reached a breakdown,” Israeli businessman Eli Hurwitz, former CEO of Teva Pharmaceuticals, told the conference. “Never did I think the leadership would be this bad.”
Hurwitz warned that corruption could hurt the Israeli market, a call joined by several banking officials who commented on how Israel’s image abroad was being damaged by a flurry of recent corruption scandals.
Stanley Fischer, governor of the Bank of Israel, tried to offer some hope, saying the corruption investigations were being handled swiftly.
“If only there were no such affairs,” Fischer said. “But it is important to emphasize that the moment they come up, they are dealt with fairly quickly and with great seriousness. That is an important ray of light; it is not a trivial point. It indicates that the legal and judicial infrastructure is not willing to accept illegal phenomenon.”
When this year’s discussion shifted from Israel’s internal malaise, the subject of Iran’s quest for nuclear power dominated the agenda.
The four-day conference, which ends Wednesday, is seen as the most prestigious conference on national security issues in Israel. It has been a platform for important announcements such as then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan.
Among the many speakers were faculty at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, the private college that sponsors the conference.
In a session called “Knowing Thy Enemy,” Shmuel Bar, a professor at the college and an expert on Islamic radicalism, spoke of Iran’s belief that its destiny is to control the region. Bar also described how Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s brinkmanship is putting him at odds with the old guard in Iran.
Bernard Lewis, a professor emeritus at Princeton University and an influential historian of the Middle East and Islam, told the same panel that Iran is undergoing a new revolution. The danger is heightened, he warned, because the Shi’ites feel an apocalypse is approaching.
Some say Iran would never attack Israel with nuclear weapons because the Jewish state is believed to be capable of striking back with its own nukes, but Lewis disagreed. Given the Iranian leadership’s apocalyptic worldview, the chance of becoming a nuclear power is one in which, he said, “mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent but an inducement” for the Iranian regime.
American officials past and present were on hand to offer their assessments of Mideast security issues, and they also spoke about Iran.
Former CIA director James Woolsey said the various threats facing Israel from across the Middle East all shared a common denominator of “Islamist totalitarianism.”
“Iran is not remotely interested in nuclear power for electricity,” he said. “The destruction of Israel is not the policy of Iran, but its essence… Achieving weapons of mass destruction is part of this essence.”
Woolsey said a military attack against Iran by either the United States or Israel was not the best scenario, but was better than allowing Iran to go nuclear. But he cautioned, “If we use force, we should use it decisively.”
Woolsey and Lewis both warned of the rising threat of global jihad, and Woolsey said help should not be expected from the Europeans.
“Europe is accommodating sharia,” or Islamic religious law, “and becoming increasingly affected by the Muslim demographics in their countries,” he said.
Nicholas Burns, U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, discussed the strategic dialogue between the United States and Israel. He emphasized the importance of diplomacy and said Washington was not seeking confrontation with Tehran.
Several potential U.S. presidential candidates, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Democratic vice presidential candidate and North Carolina senator John Edwards, addressed the conference. But Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who spoke via satellite, warned that Israeli-American relations might be cooling.
Citing what he called a rise in negative stereotyping of Jews in America and a hostile anti-Israel climate on U.S. college campuses and in parts of the media, Dershowitz said Israel might have to prepare to be more isolated in the next few years.
“Israel must be prepared to lose American support in the coming years both diplomatically and economically,” he said. “My message to Israel is, be strong and be prepared to go it alone.”
Perhaps the lone voice of optimism at the conference was that of Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who said Ahmadinejad was doing a “great job” for Israel — because “without him, the world would not unite in an anti-Persian policy,” he said.
Last summer’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon also was the subject of soul-searching as former military generals and politicians tried to address how to fix what went wrong.
The army’s overdependence on technology was noted. Speakers also cited the need to maintain basic assets, such as updating maps and checking supply lines.
Other topics included how Israel’s self-criticism after the war was being read by its Arab neighbors, the State of Israel’s education system and how to create a dialogue with Israel’s Arab minority.