Speaking in front of a crowd of hundreds of attendees at the annual conference of The Jerusalem Post in Manhattan on Monday, former Israeli Prime Minister Edud Olmert told Yaakov Katz, Editor-in-Chief, that the current Israeli leaders are good guys, but lack a special spark that Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir possessed.
Olmert said that with the best leaders, “you can feel that something is burning in their belly, in their chest, that is threatening to explode all over the place in order to achieve what they think is essential for the security, for the well-being and for the prosperity of the state of Israel.”
He said he would be fine to see the current coalition continue for four years but isn’t happy about one thing.
“I’m afraid that there is not enough fire in the chest of some of these people and I wish that there will be,” Olmert said.
Katz asked Olmert if he plans to run for office; Olmert told Katz his outlet would be the first to know should he make any big decisions.
Olmert spoke about his decision to attack the Syrian nuclear power plant in 2007, against the recommendation of then President George W. Bush, who favored only a diplomatic approach.
“I immediately, without even a second of waiting, I said, ‘Mr. President, you will not do it, I will do it, because the responsibility for the defense of the state of Israel is mine and not yours, thank you very much,’” he said to applause from the audience.
Olmert added that it is wrong not to attempt a peace deal.
“We don’t talk about the Palestinians, this is a mistake,” Olmert said, adding that Israel needs to separate from Palestinians, or it is a “recipe for terror, for confrontations, for pain, for blood that we don’t want and they don’t need.”
Olmert said Iran’s nuclear weapons apparatus is much more difficult to eliminate than it was for the destruction of Iraq and Syria’s programs, as Iran has weapons buried deep underground. While he did not specify how, he said Israel could prevent Iran from being a nuclear power and the reason they are not doing so now is not because of Iran’s “commitments.”
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, also in attendance, was asked by Mark Adler, a former Canadian Parliament member, if Israel has the weaponry to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities or if it is too late to do so.
Gantz replied, “Obviously we cannot elaborate on our capabilities,” and received applause.
“We will never ask the United States to do it for us,” Gantz said. “We will defend ourselves by ourselves.”
Asked by another audience member if he would “in the interest of stability” join former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and be rotating leaders of Israel, Gantz said he would not.
Gantz said Iran has stepped up its violent activities and that lifting sanctions would increase Iran’s ability to terrorize. He suggested that Iran, unfettered in its hegemonic ambitions, will spark a nuclear arms race.
“And to Israel, it will impose an existential threat which we will never accept,” Gantz said.
Thomas Nides, America’s ambassador to Israel, told the crowd that President Joe Biden will not allow Iran to become nuclear.
Republican New York Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin said an Iran deal would be a mistake and worse than the original one. Zeldin, who is Jewish, received applause when he said the United States should walk away from the table. Zeldin noted that there was a city council hearing on antisemitism scheduled around the CUNY chancellor’s schedule, but the chancellor didn’t show up to the hearing.
“The culture has to be overhauled and if that means setting an example at the very top by removing the chancellor of the city university of New York, so be it,” Zeldin said.
Democratic New York Governor Kathy Hochul called Israel “an oasis of democracy.”
“The rise in antisemitism is a deep personal concern to me as human being,” Hochul said, adding that New York has worked to protect yeshivas and synagogues in New York, allocating some $68 million to fortify them.
She said a 13-year-old Jewish boy told her he was afraid to wear his yarmulke, as he might get knocked down on the street. She said she told him wear it “proudly because you’re upholding a tradition for generations.”
She added that many Holocaust survivors in New York were living in poverty, and she said she wanted to give them resources to lift them up. She said she wants to make sure New York schools teach the Holocaust, adding that “I’m not sure I remember learning about it as a child at school.”
Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, said Israeli prime ministers have been held hostage by government members threatening to leave coalitions and while America, England and France have two major political parties, Israel has 22 parties. He was among a number of speakers to say that five elections in three years is not normal, calling for a change in the electoral system.
“It’s like the elephant in the room,” Lauder said. “…Some people, when they go to bed, count sheep. Today, in Israel, a prime mister needs to count Knesset members.”
Moshe Lion, the mayor of Jerusalem, interjected some humor when he said, “It is my great pleasure to be with you in The Big Apple, all the way from The Big Falafel.”
Then he got serious, saying a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian walk into a startup: “It’s not a joke, it’s a reality. It happens every day in Jerusalem.”
He said there are more than 600 tech companies employing 20,000 people in his city.
Speaking of the younger generation of American Jewry and Israel, Asaf Zamir, Consul General in New York, said “the connection isn’t always there” and he wanted to see it strengthened.
Waze co-founder Uri Levine was the only speaker in jeans and a t-shirt. Asked what his secret sauce is, he said an entrepreneur has to fall in love with the problem, not the solution, words humorously printed on his shirt.
For the first time in the annual conference, representatives from Bahrain and Morocco were speakers. Morocco’s ambassador to the United Nations, Omar Hilale, and Bahrain’s ambassador to America, Shaikh Abdulla Bin Rashid Bin Abdulla Al-Khalifa, joined Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, in a discussion moderated by Katz.
Erdan said he is seeing some progress at the UN. He added that he hopes by the example of Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Palestinians will eventually see peace is a better alternative. Al-Khalifa wished condolences to anyone who lost a loved one in the attacks of September 11, 2001, and said he hoped Bahrain and Israel will continue to grow closer, while Hilale said he is looking forward to continuous good trade between the two countries.
Adam Singolda, founder of the discovery and advertising platform Taboola, said that after he served in the IDF and had a career as an engineer, he told his mother that instead of searching for information someone wants, the information should find them. Her response was that he should stop drinking and smoking. But his company is on fire, as it became a unicorn, the phrase used for any billion-dollar company. Its 22 offices include its flagship in New York City, as well as sites in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv.
Canadian philanthropist Sylvan Adams said he made aliyah six years ago and realized he could show off Israel to millions of people who think of it as merely a conflict zone, by televising sporting and entertainment events hosted there. He brought Madonna to perform for Eurovision in 2019 and a year earlier, brought Italy’s famous 21-day bike race known the “Giro d’Italia” to The Holy Land. He said that more than a billion TV spectators were able to see the beautiful landscape from Haifa to Eilat. He is also part of Save A Child’s Heart, an NGO that helps kids from countries around the world, including Palestinian children. He said his efforts to broadcast live events are speaking to the silent majority.
“They don’t want a history lesson or a political science lesson,” Adams said. “They just want to enjoy their sport, or their music concert or their cultural event.”
Democratic New Jersey Congressman Josh Gottheimer, who is Jewish, railed against possible Iran deal and said it is a foolish path to go down. He said while some members of “The Squad” have made negative comments or posts about Jews or Israel, one should look at the record of Democrats regarding Iron Dome or anti-BDS and should not believe that the Democratic Party has been taken over by them.
Stuart Force described terrorists as setting up the Wild Wild West, only instead of a “Wanted” poster, there is a blank poster, and terrorists get rewarded for killing innocent people. The Taylor Force Act is named after his son, a Vanderbilt University graduate student killed by a terrorist in Tel Aviv in 2016. Its goal is to stop the “pay for slay” transaction where Palestinian governmental agencies pay successful terrorists or their families, by cutting funds to Palestinian governmental agencies if they continue this policy.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president of the NGO Shurat HaDin, also known as the Israel Law Center, recalled hearing a story of a five-year-old girl who was killed by a terrorist at a bus stop. She said a male relative of the girl told her, “I wish I would have killed this bastard.” But he told her he knew he could not take the law into his own hands.
Bret Stephens, senior Opinion columnist for The New York Times, and a former Jerusalem Post Editor-In-Chief, said one tough moment of leading the outlet was when one of his reporters was almost killed in a terrorist bombing.
He said he sees a decline in quality of American journalism and democracy and that it is astonishing that polls show there is less public trust in the news media than there is in Congress. Stephens, who is not on Twitter, said if it were up to him, he might forbid reporters from being on Twitter as some reporters can be motivated to write whatever they think will grow their online following.
Maayan Hoffman, head of conferences for The Jerusalem Post who moderated one of the two panels with Stephens, asked a different speaker about the need for accuracy and fairness, and cited an article by media watchdog Honest Reporting, claiming that three New York Times freelancers in the Gaza Strip praised Adolf Hitler and Palestinian terrorist attacks, though The Times had not been aware of their opinions as they had been expressed on social media in Arabic.
Stephens noted that the three were no longer working for The New York Times.
Stephens said that while The Jerusalem Post was seen only as an Israeli newspaper in 2002, he worked to give it greater reach. He commented that serving as editor was one of the proudest achievements of his life, saying that his mindset during that era was that “we are that bridge to an engaged diaspora, North American Jewish community, whose heart beats for Israel.”
Alan Zeitlin is a New York based writer. His articles have appeared in The New York Jewish Week, The Forward, The Jerusalem Post and other publications.