For Israel, 60 Candles And Many Luminaries

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008

JERUSALEM, May 14 -- Most countries mark big celebrations with music and fireworks. Here in Israel, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary, they are also celebrating with talk.

Lots of it.

At mid-afternoon Wednesday, the center of the Jewish universe was almost certainly the modern-looking convention center here. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz was kibitzing with former White House domestic policy adviser Jay Lefkowitz. Ron Lauder, the former ambassador who now heads the World Jewish Congress, was holding court on a couch nearby, and Leslie Wexner, founder of the Limited clothing chain and one of richest men in the United States, was spotted crossing the room. A crowd, meanwhile, was forming to hear Dershowitz discuss the moral dimensions of foreign policy with Václav Havel, Mort Zuckerman and Efraim Halevy, the former director of the Israeli spy agency Mossad.

Call it the "Jewish Davos," said Dennis Ross, one of the conference organizers and a former Middle East peace envoy, referring to the annual meetings of the intellectual, business and government elite at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

This was the second day of the three-day "Facing Tomorrow" conference, with former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger ruminating about the future of the world with French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and Goldman Sachs strategist Abby Joseph Cohen. Conference attendees ate their salmon at lunch while listening to Elie Wiesel and other Jewish Nobel Prize laureates. And a Chinese Talmudic scholar was even on hand to discuss "How can the Jewish people strengthen their friendship with the Chinese giant?"

Wednesday evening brought the biggest hitter of all, President Bush, who dropped by the conference hall to bring his best wishes for Israel's 60th. At home, Bush may be the least popular president since Harry Truman, but here in Israel he was greeted with a raucous standing ovation when he entered the auditorium and lavish praise from Israel's leaders.

Bush was overcome with emotion, brushing aside tears after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hailed him as an "unusual friend" to the state of Israel and a series of tributes that included a pair of interpretive dancers moving around the stage to Carole King's "You've Got a Friend."

Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino tycoon and a big financier of Republican and Jewish causes, preceded Bush to the stage and hailed him as "the most supportive" president Israel has ever known. The Israeli authorities took advantage of Adelson's presence to question him in a bribery investigation that is focusing on Olmert and could topple the government, a big subject of speculation on the sidelines of the conference. (Law enforcement officials have told Israeli media that Adelson is not a suspect.)

It's perhaps no surprise that Bush kept the Truman analogy going in his own remarks, since he seems to expect his decisions on Iraq and other issues will be vindicated by history, in the fashion of the 33rd president of the United States. Citing Truman's decision to recognize Israel over the objections of his own secretary of state, Bush declared, "Because Harry Truman did what was right instead of following the conventional wisdom, we can say today that America is Israel 's oldest and best friend in the world."

Sitting regally by Bush's side this evening was Israeli President Shimon Peres, the legendary 84-year-old statesman who was the moving force behind the plan to mark the 60th anniversary with a conference assessing the future of Israel and Jewry. The event is getting a huge amount of attention in the Israeli press, and one Israeli official privately referred to it as "Peres's party."

"He's always been a visionary," said Ross, who chairs a private think tank that helped plan this week's events. Peres, he said, wanted the event "not to be a celebration of the past -- but a platform for the future."

Ross said the star-studded list of guests scheduled to be here this week, including former British prime minister Tony Blair, onetime Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, sends a powerful signal to the rest of the Middle East, much of which has yet to reconcile itself to Israel's existence. "At a time when so much of the world is trying to delegitimize Israel, this is a way of saying this is a state that is very vibrant, and a country that is thriving in a lot of ways," he said.

Several of the big name guests here said they remain very optimistic about the next 60 years, though a few noted they were deeply concerned about the potential threat to Israel from Iran, whose president has vowed to wipe Israel off the map. Lauder, in a brief interview, said he used his time here to buttonhole the president of Poland and foreign minister of Spain about keeping the pressure on Tehran.

"I feel optimistic and pessimistic," Lauder said. "I feel the state has enormous resiliency. The economy is booming." But he added, "If Iran gets a nuclear weapon and decides to use it, Israel will be in mortal danger."

While clearly celebrating Israel, the conference organizers can probably not be accused of sugarcoating the various problems in the Jewish state. One of the panels Wednesday morning focused on the tense relations between Israel's Arab and Jewish citizens. (Indeed, Palestinians often refer to the founding of Israel as "the catastrophe.") One of the panelists was Amal Elsana-Alh'jooj, director of the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation, who said, "I really want to see myself as an equal citizen, and that is why I came here -- to raise my voice."

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