There was a time when “Israeli politics stopped at the Mediterranean,” Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, told the large crowd Sunday morning at the first annual Jerusalem Post conference in New York.
When traveling out of the country, Israeli officials spoke with “one voice,” he said almost wistfully, recalling those displays of unity. But not anymore.
That was clear from the moment former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave the all-day program’s opening speech, a strong critique of the policies of the Netanyahu government in dealing — or rather not dealing, in his view — with the Palestinian Authority. He also blamed the prime minister for comparing the Iranian crisis to the Holocaust and for allegedly picking fights with President Obama rather than courting his approval.
Olmert, forced to resign in disgrace over charges of corruption, was greeted politely when he took the stage at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Midtown, but as he made his views known, many in the crowd grew increasingly restive, punctured by boos and a few shouts, like “Neville Chamberlain” and, in Hebrew, “go home.”
He responded at one point with sarcasm: “I love the courage of those who live 10,000 miles away from the State of Israel and are ready that we will make every possible mistake that will cost Israeli lives.”
Olmert’s similar message may have been greeted warmly at the recent J Street conference in Washington, but based on the reaction, this audience was made up primarily of right-of-center New Yorkers, largely consistent with the editorial position of the host newspaper. And they were not pleased with what he had to say.
Undaunted, Olmert noted at the outset that Israeli leaders should “avoid unnecessary slogans” like speaking of Jerusalem as the eternal, undivided capital of Israel — as he often did as mayor, by the way — and rather show the “courage and honesty” to deal with reality. That reality, he said, calls for Israel to adjust to “the requirements of compromise” in earnest.
“Why do I need the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state?” he asked, citing a requirement Prime Minister Netanyahu has made of the PA.
“We need the courage to go forward,” Olmert continued, “and we are not doing it today” under the Netanyahu government, he charged.
Even if the Palestinians rejected Israel’s offers, as they did when he was willing to give up Jerusalem’s holy places in 2008 negotiations rejected by the PA, Olmert said the U.S. and much of the world would recognize Israel’s willingness to make peace and ease international criticism.
Most important, Olmert said, was not to “fight” with the president of the United States over Mideast policy differences.
He said Obama was a friend of Israel — no crowd reaction — and that the U.S. has the political and military power to lead the effort to keep Iran from achieving nuclear arms.
“America has to lead,” he said, noting that there was “enough time to try different avenues” other than a military attack. “This time is not the right time and may not lead to the outcome we think will protect Israel,” Olmert asserted. He added that quiet diplomacy is called for, and that while Washington is a strong ally, it is not “under the command of Israel” and shouldn’t be made to appear that way.
The following speaker, Gilad Erdan, minister of environmental protection and a member of Likud, put aside his prepared speech for a few moments and responded in kind to Olmert, saying “sometimes” the former prime minister has been right in his decisions, citing his opposition to the Menachem Begin peace agreement with Egypt.
There are times when slogans should be repeated, Erdan said, and that is when they speak the truth “even if the international community doesn’t want to hear them,” he said to enthusiastic applause.
Former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi later indicated his agreement with Olmert about the need for extreme caution before attacking Iran. Both former leaders said there was still time to seek other means of preventing a military showdown.
But the speakers during the day who received the most applause were those who firmly backed the Netanyahu government’s positions and who called on President Obama to give clemency to convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
A poll released by The Jerusalem Post at the conference showed that most Israelis support a military strike on Iran — if it was headed by an American-led coalition.
The forum occurred the morning before Netanyahu's father, Ben-Tzion, died in Jerusalem at 102.