The people's revolution in Egypt cast its shadow as far as the eleventh Herzliya Conference in Israel. Opened by Israeli President Shimon Peres on the 7 February, the conference brought together opinion makers to focus on Israel's security matters among other issues. It was clear that events in Tunisia and Egypt took the military, political and security elite in Israel by surprise.
Also on the Herzliya agenda were sessions looking at strategic issues linked to the future of the Zionist state, including those relating to Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Iran. The situation in Egypt was pushed to the top of the agenda.
The Herzliya Conference is held annually and is one of the largest Israeli research projects, tackling very sensitive core issues relating to Israel's national security; conclusions reached during the conference resurface frequently, driving the policies of governments of all political hues. They also influence strategies and tactics adopted by pro-Israel lobby groups around the world.
Months prior to the conference, the organisers hire researchers to prepare policy papers for discussion. In this way, Israel is able to recruit some of the most competent minds for the benefit of its own aims and objectives. It is alleged that the costs of the conference are underwritten by the US government's intelligence budget and that it forms a bridge between academia and the intelligence services of America and Israel.
The uprising in Egypt swept all of the predictive data prepared for the 11th Herzliya Conference to one side, including estimates regarding Israeli security. In short, Egypt became the main talking point in the main conference room as well as the break-out sessions and fringe activities.
Shimon Peres expressed Israel's panic about events in Egypt loudly and clearly: History has lost patience, he said, with everything happening at an unprecedented speed. "Either we move with the winds of history or it will be written without us," he advised. "Some have told us to let the storm pass, but no one knows when it will end."
The Conference President, General Danny Rothschild, said that delegates should try to anticipate future developments and the outcomes which may arise from the Egyptian uprising. It was even suggested that Israel should complete a deal with the Palestinians before the Zionist state runs out of time and it becomes impossible to achieve. That, he claimed, would leave the Palestinian issue and its attendant difficulties as a burden on Israel. A number of speakers at Herzliya declared that Israel is going through a pivotal stage and some referred to the "alienation of allies" and the implications for Israel's peace treaty with Egypt.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Leader of the Opposition, Tzipi Livni, added their voices to the chorus calling for greater vigilance as they believe that war could break out on several fronts due to what Israel's enemies may perceive as the country's "vulnerability" at this time. The Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces spoke of the need to rebuild its military philosophy and strategies in case the "southern front" becomes less stable.
According to the definition provided by the Herzliya Conference, "national strength" in Israel is the means by which political, military and security strength is measured. This reflects the steadfastness and ability of individuals and society to cope in the atmosphere of constant struggle, pressures and challenges. It demands sufficient flexibility to keep it from breaking, while maintaining stability in terms of basic beliefs and concepts which together construct the social fabric of Israeli society.
Professor Gabriel Ben-Dor revealed the results of a major survey measuring Israel's national strength. The indications are, he said, that there has been a substantial reduction in the degree of national consciousness among Jews in Israel and their willingness to fight for the state. Such a decline has not been seen in the ten years that the poll has been conducted. This, he added, points to widening economic and social differences across society, corruption and a leadership crisis. The fear of terrorism has apparently reached a new low, as has the fear of an attack from a "hostile state". Public confidence in state institutions has also fallen.
All of this led to this year's Herzliya Conference ending on a cautious and somewhat downbeat note compared with previous years, as policy-makers and Israel's leaders watch with interest and some degree of trepidation the end results of the people's revolution which has ousted Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
The author is a Palestinian writer based in Damascus. He is a member of the Arab Writers Union. This article is a translation of the Arabic version which was first published in Al-Watan, newspaper, (Qatar), 16/2/2011.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.