All smiles at Shimon Peres’ birthday conference


Iran’s nuclear program isn’t stopping. The death count in Syria rises daily. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows no signs of being solved in the near future.

You wouldn’t know it, though, from Israel’s Presidential Conference, a gathering of world leaders, celebrities and opinion makers presented by Shimon Peres, Israel’s eternal optimist and soon-to-be 90-year-old head of state. His birthday, in August, is a focal point of the event dubbed “Facing Tomorrow.”

The conference has covered a myriad of substantive topics: weapons development, education, health care and, of course, regional security issues, among others.

But unlike other major Israeli conferences, this one has a lighthearted mood. Speakers address Peres directly from the podium, joking about his age or still-sharp mental state after six decades of Israeli politics. Robert DeNiro walks the halls flanked by bodyguards and an entourage. Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the Holocaust survivor turned Haganah fighter turned sex therapist, laughs about getting it on during Shabbat. Barbra Streisand poses with world leaders.

“He is a movie star,” DeNiro said of Peres.

While another major confab, the Herzliya Conference in March, drove home the message that Israel is beset on (almost) all sides by rising extremism and insecure borders, speakers at the Presidential Conference conveyed that with the right thinking and a spirit of entrepreneurship that any problem — from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to global warming — can be solved.

“Israel has this ability, we have the ability to change in a nonviolent way, to reinvent ourselves again and again,” said Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid. “Whatever the circumstances, we know how to make the best out of it.”

The range of topics is broad, but most major sessions have in part celebrated Peres, or at least the man he’s recently become. Formerly one of Israel’s most embattled politicians, since becoming president in 2007 he has emerged as one of the least controversial of Israeli leaders, the face Israel most wants to show to the world.

So if there’s one message coming from the conference today, it’s to be like Peres: always reinventing himself, always looking toward the future, forever the start-up leader of the start-up nation.

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