This year's Herzliya Conference in Israel was held amid the state's fears of the rapid political changes in the region. This prompted the organisers to invite many Israeli officials and international figures to attend, including European prime ministers and senior officials in international economic institutions and organisations.
Herzliya is considered to be one of Israel's most important security strategy conferences. It looks at security issues from a local, regional and international perspective and touches on every field, political, economic, security, military and strategic.
The conference is held at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, a city named after the founding father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl. Appropriately in the context, it is built on the ruins of a Palestinian village whose indigenous population was ethnically cleansed by the Israelis. Many Israeli strategists describe Herzliya as one of the most important conferences in terms of content and participation. The country's president, prime minister, defence chiefs of staff and senior decision-makers all usually make an appearance.
Herzliya conferences have taken place annually since 2000. The first looked at "The Balance of National Strength and Security" and was initiated by Professor Uzi Arad, a former member of Mossad, who served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term of office. With objectives focusing on the Judaisation of the state, matters relating to identity, education, military strategy, security, scientific research and the economy have been addressed. It is said that the event was founded due to what was described as the "escalating existential crisis" facing Israel.
The significance of Herzliya and its long-term impact on the state and its policies can be seen by looking at the past few years' agendas and the topics they contain. For example,
- Reviewing calculations and the performance of governance.
- The political rise of Islam in the Middle East.
- Gas production and the independence of Israel in the field of energy.
- The "Siberian" war in theory and practice.
- The containment of Iran's strategic ambitions.
- Determination of the priorities of regional development.
- Strategic role of the United States, Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
- Israel and the global market.
- Where Israeli society is heading.
- Israel's security in different Middle Eastern countries.
Herzliya looks at potential threats and problems, draws conclusions and makes recommendations for dealing with them.
The 2013 Conference, which ended a few days ago, warned of the "dangerous decline" of US power in the region, compared to the rise of regional powers hostile to Israel, which now finds itself isolated strategically. Israel has also, it was said, become a strategic burden on the United States, especially amid growing international criticism which suggests chronic diplomatic failures.
Participants called on Israel not to turn a blind eye to the dangers and opportunities it faces as the only option it has lies in ending the conflict with the Palestinians. Not least, some said, because Palestinian security forces in the West Bank are cooperating with their Israeli counterparts to enforce security and pursue armed groups.
Contrary to most years when the conference had a specific banner headline covering such issues as the so-called demographic threat, international terrorism and the danger of Iranian nuclear ambitions, this year's was more general and ambiguous.
Several papers presented at Herzliya summarised the Israeli elite's vision of the impact that the Arab revolutions will have on the region, as well as the rise of Islamists to power in some countries: "We no longer see a new Middle East, but a different Middle East," they said.
If the "new Middle East" holds any meaning relating to the democracy of the Arab world and its closeness to accepting a peaceful ending to the Arab-Israeli conflict, then, according to the participants, a "different Middle East" is a cautious expression conveying the uncertainty that characterises the predictions of politicians and experts. This is especially so after their failure to anticipate the Arab Spring revolutions, which was notable in the division in opinions about the consequences of the Islamists' rise of to power.
Based on this, most Israelis and Westerners at Herzliya believe that the Islamists' domination of the political scene, especially in Egypt, may have serious consequences. The strengthening of the Islamic front against Israel or, at the very least, the spread of chaos in the region and the emergence of "failed" states exploited by hostile groups threaten Israeli security, it is alleged.
Although most of the research presented at the conference expressed doubt that the Islamic movements which have risen to power will take military action against Israel, several security officials and politicians considered the possibility of threats to Israel's actual existence. Israel's Chief of the General Staff, Benny Gantz, said, "The next war will be short-term, and the next enemy will emerge from more than one front to invade Israel and raid densely populated cities to cause panic and terror among the citizens." It must be noted that others present did not take this seriously, especially in the light of sectarian and ethnic divisions in the Middle East, as well as the fact that the Arab revolutions will distract every Arab country internally at the expense of transnational Arab and Islamic issues.
It is important to point out that many of the discussion documents emerging from Herzliya are aimed at a specific audience, notably Western political allies and opponents. Thus, the conference has become a lobbying tool for greater aid and support.
In the conclusion of this year's conference, the organisers submitted their recommendations to the new Israeli government and presented their predictions for regional issues. Security challenges and military concerns were at the top of the list of recommendations.
Taking into consideration the serious nature of the topics discussed at Herzliya, Israel's concern for its existence and the threats it faces is obvious. It is also concerned enough to be monitoring closely the political developments in the Arab world, the wider region and around the world. Its strategic alliance with the US sees Israel working to become the number one priority for America's foreign policy so that Washington meets Tel Aviv's strategic security demands as they arise.
Important conclusion of the conference included the following:
- Israel is currently facing difficult external situations.
- US influence in the region has declined, whereas regional powers hostile to Israel have risen.
- Israel is keen to follow events in the region and the world, while Arab officials neglect what is happening inside Israel.
- Israel needs to prepare a strategic, military, economic, political and social plan of action for the Israeli government and security officials, by brainstorming with researchers from different disciplines to tap into their knowledge and expertise.
- The Palestinian issue is no longer a main issue deserving Israeli attention because there are pivotal developments in the region that have marginalised it; it no longer concerns the leadership and people of the Arab world. Furthermore, Israel is working towards ending the issue and removing it from regional and international agendas.
The papers from this year's Herzliya Conference summarised the research, publications and preparatory work done over the past year and were overseen by a group of specialists and academics from top Israeli, American and European universities. These teams were charged with preparing briefing papers for senior politicians, military and security officers, businessmen and political leaders. In due course, the conference's recommendations and proposals will become a work in progress for future Israeli governments and their military and security elite. That's how important the Herzliya Conferences are.
The author is a Palestinian writer. This article is a translation from the Arabic which first appeared on Al Jazeera net on 25 March, 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.