The 11th annual Herzliya Conference, usually a buoyant assembly of Israel's brightest and most ambitious national security minds, globe-trotting security experts, and glad-handing politicians, opened Sunday under a cloud of gloom. Many of the attendees were openly anxious about the crisis in Egypt, the first Arab state to have made peace with Israel more than 30 years ago. Israelis had come to take the peace with Egypt and all the benefits that it brings—from diplomatic support and military coordination against Hamas to neutralizing what had been the Arab world's largest army—for granted.
Israelis have criticized Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for enforcing a cold peace and yearned to be not just accepted in the Arab Middle East, but embraced. Egypt's seemingly eternal ruler had taught them they would have to live with less. Now, as newly minted Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former chief of Egyptian intelligence, opened meetings with some of the opposition factions, and launched a transition to an uncertain future, Israelis whispered in the corridors of this prestigious conference that even their cold peace was now in jeopardy.
Israelis see the demonstrations against Mubarak not as an expression of a popular Egyptian yearning for freedom but through the lens of their own existential fears, and what they see frightens them, badly. They worry about the Muslim Brotherhood rising to power in free elections, and they are shaken by the speed with which the United States has abandoned a stalwart ally. Smadar Perry, a Yediot Ahranot Israeli journalist who has interviewed Mubarak many times, slammed the Obama administration in an article Monday posted on "BitterLemons," an English-language Israeli-Palestinian web site. Decrying the administration's treatment of Mubarak as "crude and arrogant," she likened the administration's stance to that of "an elephant … sent to stomp on the Mubarak regime." Perry was "shocked," she wrote, by Obama's abandonment of its ally. Obama and his secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, were "presiding over an anti-Mubarak agenda" almost as harsh as that of Al Jazeera, she charged.
Even Israelis who do not admire Mubarak understand his vital contribution to their security. Will a new elected Egyptian leader continue to help Israel enforce its embargo against militant Hamas in Gaza, which vows never to accept a Jewish state on sacred Islamic soil? Will any representative Egyptian government be willing to help contain Iran by granting Israeli warships free passage through the Suez canal? Will Israelis now need to worry about infiltration from Hezbollah and Hamas in the Sinai Peninsula? Will the next Egyptian government help neutralize Iran's nuclear program? What about continuing to deliver the gas that keeps the lights on in Tel Aviv and Haifa?
The subtext of the concerns was an even less often articulated question: How could Israel depend on a superpower that would so easily "throw such a stalwart ally to the wolves," as one veteran intelligence officer who worked for many years in Washington.
Israel is not Egypt, one Israeli analyst here comforted himself and fellow analysts by saying at a session on "Scenarios and Strategic Implications," which encouraged senior Israeli officials to speak by assuring their anonymity, which I will honor. There is a sea of difference between Israel and Egypt, several panelists insisted. Israel is not only a democracy, one veteran Israeli diplomat asserted, but a country with a huge base of support in the U.S. Congress and among the American people. Egypt had never enjoyed comparable popular support.
The flip side of Israel's concern was fear that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East and turning inward—that its role as Israel's guarantor and status as sole remaining superpower is being abandoned—along with market share and economic prowess—to China.
Lawrence Summers, President Barack Obama's former assistant for economics adviser, now back at Harvard, assured the group that this was not the case. The Unites States is recovering economically, he said. American confidence in itself is being restored. Microsoft is worth more than all of America's car, steel, and aerospace production, by a factor of 1.5. Only in the United States and Israel, he said, complimenting his hosts, "could you raise $100 million before buying your first suit."
Nor is America turning inward, he asserted. While Europe and many non-Middle Eastern states had an interest in the outcome of the power struggle under way in Egypt, "only Washington felt it had an obligation to respond."
But such reassurances seemed to do little to allay the anxiety so evident at Herzliya. Will the Egypt virus spread, and to which of Israel's other Arab allies? What about neighboring Jordan, where demonstrators have also held large rallies to protest skyrocketing food, fuel and housing prices? "We need to calm down and double check what is needed to shore up this moderate regime," one participant suggested. Israel had already come to Jordan's aid once before, during its 1970 civil war with the Palestine Liberation Organization. What if the moderate Hashemite ruler of Jordan were swept away by the current wave of protest engulfing the region? Would Egypt's current plight embolden Iran?
Israelis have few illusions about the fragility of the autocracies surrounding them. "We have been sitting on a volcano since the end of the cold war," said one veteran Israeli student of the Arab world.
At the end of the gloomy morning, one Israeli analyst wondered whether the crisis in Egypt might not ultimately play to Israel's favor. Would Israel not emerge clearly now as the United States' only reliable, dependable strategic "asset" in the otherwise volatile region?
"We are an island of stability in a sea of dictatorship," Yael German, the mayor of Herzliya, told the gathering in an on-the-record plenary session.
President Shimon Peres, who looked two decades younger than his 87 years, also sounded upbeat, as usual, about Israel, and also Egypt. The Middle East is experiencing a genuine revolution, he said, "more spontaneous than organized," from "the bottom up rather than the top down." It was a revolution for "computers rather than flags." Its proponents wear t-shirts and jeans, the "garb of equality," and a manifestation of the "resentment of the gap between rich and poor."
Peres' sympathy for the pro-democracy protesters in the streets of Cairo and Tunis betrayed his Labor party roots, and not Israel's modern version but the party of an earlier if not simpler time when Israelis of that persuasion called one another "comrade."
Hosni Mubarak has done a lot for peace, said Peres, "but young Egyptians want democracy too." They also want iPhones and the Internet. "You can lock the door," he said. "But the Internet is a window."
Modern technology has permitted young Egyptians and Arabs to know what was going on. A simple change of government would not solve Egypt's problems, he warned. Thanks partly to technology, Israel has galloped ahead, alleviating the poverty that gripped much of the region. Though Israel was a "small country with only two lakes—"one dead and one dying"—its agricultural sector had the highest yield in the world. And 95 percent of Israel's agricultural sector was high-tech. The region itself must follow Israel's example and "free itself from poverty" for peace to prevail, he said.
Peres, occupying a ceremonial post that has nonetheless let one of the most talented, experienced politicians in the country continue to soldier on for the causes he has long embraced, also paid lip service to the need to negotiate a peace with the Palestinians that would result in "two states for two peoples." Making peace, he said, was like crossing the Red Sea. Though difficult, he said, "the alternative is far more dangerous."
His talk, however, highlighted the lack of priority on the peace process and the Palestinians. Patrick Clawson, a specialist on Iran from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was struck by the virtual absence of the peace process from the jam-packed Herzliya schedule and corridor talk. "Israelis seem to like things just as they are," he said.
Last year, the Palestine Authority's Mahmoud Abbas addressed the gathering. This year, there is but one panel scheduled on the long-stalled talks, and the most senior Palestinian planning to attend the gathering—indeed, one of the only Palestinian officials scheduled to attend—is Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestine Liberation Organization's Secretary General.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who gave a much-criticized keynote speech last year, is not scheduled to speak. Nor is Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who broke away from his political party to form a new party in what Israeli journalists have branded a desperate attempt to retain his ministry. But perhaps Barak, who declined to attend, saying he had to fly to Washington for consultations, did not want to answer questions about yet another scandal—this one over his ham-handed replacement of chief of staff Lt. General Gabi Ashkenazi with Yoav Galant, who had to withdraw his nomination after the newspaper Maariv disclosed that he had improperly confiscated land in his home town of Amikam in northern Israel and then lied about it.
Apart from their concern about the fate of Egypt, Israelis here seem utterly preoccupied with internal scandals and tiffs. The subject of Israel's political divisions is on Herzliya's agenda, but one senses that several entire conferences could be devoted to the fierce battles being waged on Israel's domestic front without resolving any of them. Meanwhile, the neighborhood is changing.