Guest post by Jessica Snapper

My first concern at the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem was not that I might stumble in my heels and nearly trip into Natan Sharansky (which I did), but that I could potentially kill the Israeli president.

Before the Shin Bet or anyone else reading this article freaks out, I just want to mention that I work at a homeland security firm in Israel, so it’s not really in my best interest to kill the President. Even before I became involved in the field, I’ve always had a very security-focused brain, bordering on the downright abnormal. You see, a normal twenty-something year old woman sitting mere feet away from the venerable Shimon Peres would be (a) happy, (b) excited, or (c) experiencing some other normal human emotion.

Instead, I was concerned that the security at the entrance hadn’t used a metal detector while doing a cursory search through my bag. (Hello! I could have slipped some short-bladed dagger knife in the lining of my purse!) Once inside the pressroom, I immediately took note of how many exits there were versus the ratio of people inside the room and the possibility of a stampede (in case of a fire or other emergency) and the likelihood of a devastating crush that might result. Once seated across from the President, I calculated that the distance between me and Peres was slightly shorter than the VIP protection detail and Peres. With my long legs, it would take me approximately two short strides to reach the President and stab him.

Ok, obviously no one stabbed the President, plus you have to give Israeli security a little more credit for its ability to deal with terrorists. But that’s not the point I was trying to make. What I wanted to say is that for someone who has a very cynical outlook on all matters related to statecraft and national security, as well as a knack for imagining the worst case scenarios, I came to this three-day event at the International Convention Center in Israel’s capital a little cynical about a celebratory event meant to “encourage us to shape a better tomorrow and an inspiring future.”

The Conference was sure to be inspiring, considering its list of speakers: Tony Blair, David Trimble, Jimmy Wales, Bernard Henry-Levi, Sarah Silverman (ok, not exactly a dignitary, but so obnoxiously funny that she should get royal status anyways), Larry Summers, Miri Eisen, Natan Sharansky (who was a good sport about me nearly falling on him outside the bathroom stairwell), Sir Martin Sorrell, the Israeli Prime Minister himself, and so many more awe-inspiring people. (Even Shakira was at the event, and while I was not initially sure how she got there, it turned out she had a cause, too).

In the first plenary session, which included a flurry of press coverage and a glowing neon background with the title “Nation, Interests and Ethics in the Journey Toward Tomorrow,” there was certainly an ambience of power in the air that was inspiring. The very presence of such individuals – human yet uber-human – and the knowledge of the great improvements they had brought to the world, left you with the feeling that you might want to join their club of coolness and change the world for the better, too.

At the same time, I was still cynical: of course they’ll identify problems, but are they brave enough to come up with some original solutions? Or were they just going to talk about some stupid, unrealistic concept, like “peace in the Middle East?” In a moment of classic American ADD during the speeches, I looked down at my shoes and wondered to myself what was more likely to happen first: man creating comfortable high heels or man nuking out the entire planet in the next world war.

The Conference was basically comprised of three types of activities: panels, plenary sessions, and “break times”. Break time was essentially a networking occasion to exchange business cards, sip some wine, and eat these tiny hor d’oeuvres that left me so hungry and bitchy that I wound up getting a little snappy with a famous scientist who had come to talk about his cancer research (I apologize).

I also quickly learned that the Presidential Conference was not just a widely televised symposium of visions and inspiration for the future, but a “who’s who” event where people network the living daylights out of each other. It was fascinating to watch the fluidity of connections and information that was being rapidly traded and upgraded at the Conference with subtle grace and maneuvering.

Unfortunately, not everyone was a graceful little socialite, demonstrated by the charming Israeli greaseball who sidled up next to me on one of the white couches and blurted out the worst pick-up line I’ve ever heard in my life:

“So, you must be pretty insecure about your height.”

Yes, I’m a shocking five-foot-eleven – practically unheard of for a woman in the Jewish world. And yet, I insist on wearing high heels, which one might think would indicate that I’m quite secure with my height.

“You must be pretty insecure to have to use that as a pick up line,” I replied.

The poor guy looked confused. Maybe he didn’t understand my English. I decided to give him approximately a minute and a half to amuse me before I would leave. I asked him what he did for a living and he replied that he was a “psychologist of persuasion” working for various businesses.

I wonder if he’s currently trying to persuade me to sleep with him, because it’s definitely not working.

Then, sweetly condescending, he asks me, “What do you want to be when you grow up? And don’t say a princess.”

“Uh, I work in counterterrorism.”

Spooky perverts aside, when I wasn’t busy meeting new connections from every field imaginable (science, hi-tech, media, urban planning, and more), I found discussion panels on topics that ranged from Diaspora relations to brain science to global marketing. There were two panels that I found particularly riveting, which is important when you have the attention span of a five year old. First was the one-on-one interviews with investigative reporter Ilana Dayan. Maybe I don’t fully understand the art of investigative journalism, but it seemed that Dayan had a slight tendency to insert her own opinions into every question she asked the interviewees. When pointedly asked about a past scandal, Larry Summers (a terrific speaker) called her out on her shtick: “It’s like asking me, what was it like beating your grandmother. You’ve already answered the question for me.”

Even more disturbing was when Jibril Rajoub from the Palestinian Authority was invited to the stage. The broad range of speakers at the Conference was commendable, but Rajoub was clearly not there to engage in any serious dialogue. Rather, he used this opportunity facing the foreign media to stage a mini Shakespearean tragedy of the Palestinians’ plight. Instead of answering Dayan’s straightforward questions concerning incitement in Palestinian schools and the recent terrorist attack in Itamar, Rajoub switched from Hebrew to English in order to address the horde of reporters, proclaiming forlornly, “Every Palestinian wakes up in the morning terrified of another Baruch Marzel.”

Although I thought the guy was a piece of work, there was still something to be said for his manipulation of the media for propaganda purposes. Maybe there was something we could learn from the Palestinians when it comes to Israel’s own machinations (or lack thereof) when it comes to public diplomacy and image framing in the international arena.

Which leads me to the second panel that held my ADD at bay both for its interesting topic and motivating speakers: “De-legtimization – Who is at Fault: Us or Them?” The host introduced the discourse with questions such as: What is it? How serious a threat is it to Israel? And what can we do about it?

Abe Foxman

Abraham Foxman (Former National Director of Anti-Defamation League, USA) added a few of his own questions: Why us? Why are we treated differently? In a nutshell, his opinion was that too much self-critical questioning would only legitimize the de-legitimizers, and that Arab rejection fuels this process.

Irwin Cotler (Former Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Canada) was by far the most articulate and “efficient” speaker, fitting in about a hundred new ideas per minute. He pointed out that de-legitimization was not a new phenomenon, but was born at the same time as the modern State of Israel. It was now being accelerated by the globalization of human rights, laws, and NGOs that manipulates the image of Israel in an era where human rights have become the new secular religion of our time. We live in a legal culture as well, which Cotler terms as “lawfare”, enabling Israel’s critics to ask questions such as, “Are settlements legal? Does Israel have a right to exist?” and so on.

Malcolm Hoenlein (Executive Director of Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York, USA) spoke of de-legitimization as a cancerous process that most people don’t notice until it’s too late. You don’t win a game by a good defense alone, he claimed, but with a smart offense as well.

Miri Eisen (Former International Media Advisor to Prime Minister, Israel) argued that “an image is worth a thousand words” as far as the media was concerned. Concepts needed to be simplified and packaged concisely for a broader audience, since no one was interested in hearing the long, arduous history of the conflict.

Peter Goldsmith (Former Attorney General of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, UK) took a slightly different angle, finally putting aside “who’s to blame” and addressing “what to do about it”. He didn’t pull out an in-depth ten-point plan (not an easy feat in the allotted seven minutes, for that matter), but he did introduce some better ideas – including choosing when to go on the offensive and when to remain silent (i.e. as to not give the de-legitimizer publicity). He agreed with Cotler in regards to fighting de-legitimization in the international legal arena as well vis-à-vis universal jurisdiction.

The bottom line of many of the speakers was that it was time for Israel to take back the narrative, stop allowing its enemies to hijack reality. The war against terror was gradually turning into a war of soft power. While this was all perceptive and eloquent, very few practical solutions were offered. Overall, I thought concentrating more on solutions versus problems would have improved the Conference in general.

Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales, President Shimon Peres and not Justin Bieber

On the last day of the Conference, I was invited to a private bloggers-only session with the President. Although I’m pretty much computer-retarded and have only a vague idea of what a blogger actually is, I did have a press badge with the title “blogger” on it. (The man who obtained this badge for me shall remain anonymous.) Sitting so close to Shimon Peres once again, my mind was not filled with the various ways he might be assassinated, but with the uniqueness of his tough/caring attitude towards the crowd. He didn’t seem impatient at all by the bloggers’ questions, even the ones that bordered on ridiculous. And when he answered questions pertaining to the well-being of the country, you got the sense that the guy genuinely cared.

And then, out of nowhere, Justin Bieber stood up and addressed the president. What the hell was some Canadian teeny bopper doing at the Israeli Presidential Conference?

I soon learned that this was not Justin Bieber, but a fifteen year old Israeli computer/electronics/blogging prodigy, who happened to have a Justin Bieber haircut. Oh, and his own TV show. Not too shabby for a fifteen year old.

During the next break time, I happened to wind up on the same white couch as the Hebrew Bieber and his managing troupe. The manager, who looked like he was about my age, explained to me that he had found Hebrew Bieber a few years ago while building a new program that recruits and conditions the next generation of Israeli leadership. He’s been going to Israeli high schools across the country and scouting out geniuses in a variety of fields. He then gives the teenagers an incentive to listen to him by saying that he can help them be a success, be “celebrities” if they want, because lots of teenagers are attracted to that. Once he has their attention, he starts weaving in the importance of values and business ethics. Finally, he educates them on the importance of promoting the image of their country through their work.

“Age and class don’t matter anymore in Israel,” he told me. “This is a new era in the world in general, where we all have access. We have to make sure our future leaders are not selfish, egotistical maniacs by providing them with guidance at a young age.”

Out of all speeches given during this Conference, and all the stories I’ve heard during break time, this is probably one of the most inspiring. It’s a worthwhile, practical-minded vision and it starts from the bottom-up. So many speakers have questioned if our quality of life is improving at the same rate as technology, but few have actually considered the value of starting with a solution that takes places at such a basic human level.

And so we all trade business cards. Maybe one of us will be helping another in the near future.

As I watched Shimon Peres make his final address in the auditorium, I couldn’t help getting a little teary-eyed – – and even optimistic. Here was a man who has cradled the State of Israel since its tumultuous infancy, who has weathered a political career spanning nearly seventy years in the most aggravating region on the planet, and yet he’s still optimistic. You might not be able to change the entire world in one sweep, but you can always become part of the bigger network and make your contribution towards a continually improving tomorrow.

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