HERZILYA, ISRAEL— The city of Herzliya sits about ten miles north of Tel Aviv on Israel’s breezy central Mediterranean coast. Often referred to as the “Silicon Valley of Israel,” it’s home to high-tech startups, palm tree-lined boulevards, a number of very decent bars, restaurants and beachside hangouts and, as I discovered soon after getting into my room at the Dan Accadia Hotel and checking the sea view, quite a few surfers. But for the road signs in Hebrew and Arabic, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for California.
It’s also the home of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Israel’s first private university. Established in 1994, the IDC boasts some of the most advanced facilities in the country, including an ultra-modern library donated by, and named for, Marc Rich, the indicted commodities trader who was infamously pardoned by President Bill Clinton just before Clinton left office.
Since 2000, the IDC’s Institute for Policy and Strategy has hosted what has become Israel’s most prominent and important annual policy gathering, the Herzliya Conference. The four-day forum brings together a decidedly conservative-leaning contingent of politicians, policymakers and analysts—overwhelmingly made up of Israelis and Americans, but with a sprinkling of other flavors—to discuss the main security challenges faced by the Jewish state.
The conference is no modest affair. Registration for non-Israelis can run up to $5,000. Organizations are asked to pay upwards of $50,000 to sponsor discussion panels. In addition to the public events, there are invite-only roundtable discussions—held under the Chatham House rule that prohibits publicly identifying any fellow participants—which reportedly can get a bit heated. In the conference’s lobby, people huddled around coffee tables with very serious looks, obviously discussing matters of great import. In the conference’s dining hall, former and current Israeli and US officials schmoozed over chicken and noodles fired at stir-fry stations around the room. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s David Makovsky has called Herzliya “the Davos for Middle East wonks.” An Israeli friend put it differently: “Neocon Woodstock.”
But instead of a lot of young naked people frolicking under the influence of LSD, the Herzliya Conference has a lot of middle-aged nerdy people fretting over the influence of IRGC (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). Less good vibrations, more clash of civilizations. As at Woodstock, there’s also a mood of mutual congratulation, a belief among the participants that they are the enlightened. “Herzliya is the place where the neocons get together to pat themselves on the back about being right about everything,” says Gershon Baskin, who leads the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. “That’s the mentality. They are right and everyone else just doesn’t get it.” It’s probably not correct to say that Herzliya is where a lot of big decisions are made. But it’s a place where relationships that can shape those decisions are created and renewed.
The conference has also become a regular stop for aspiring presidential candidates looking to burnish both their national security and pro-Israel credentials in one stop, with John McCain, Mitt Romney and John Edwards all making appearances in 2007. This year, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour spoke on the closing night, preaching the gospel of offshore oil drilling through his thick Southern drawl to a perplexed audience. One Israeli official laughed that these appearances were almost entirely for American political consumption. “Israelis have no idea who these people are.”