Israeli Officials Trade Barbs at First JPost Conference in NYC

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(From Left to Right) Former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi; Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; and former Director of the Mossad Meir Dagan. All three have publicly criticized the Netanyahu government for its aggressive approach toward Iran’s nuclear activities. (Photo Credit: Shahar Azran)The impressive array of Israeli and American politicians and scholars scheduled to speak at the first annual Jerusalem Post Conference did not disappoint on Sunday, as onlookers watched Ehud Olmert, Meir Dagan, and Gilad Erdan, among others, trade barbs over Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the sensibility of criticizing Israel as it faces a number of disquieting issues in the Middle East today.

Attended by more than twelve hundred people, dozens of journalists, and leading exponents of the American Jewish and Christian communities, the JPost conference was held at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan. Beginning early Sunday morning, the day’s events ultimately culminated late in the evening, with Neshama Carlebach and the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir ending ceremonies in their performance of the Israeli national anthem, Ha’Tikvah.

Entertainment and food supplemented the heavy-hitting political debates that took place throughout the afternoon. The hall took on the air of an Israeli classroom debate, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert led the charge with his scathing critique of Benjamin Netanyahu and the PM’s government.

Joining the chorus of ex-security and intelligence officials’ critics who spoke out against the government’s handling of the Iranian threat last week, Olmert lambasted the current Likud-led coalition for rushing the clock with Tehran.

Olmert is Told to “Go Home”

“There is enough time to try different avenues of pressure to change the balance of power with Iran without the need for a direct military confrontation with Iran— and now is not the right time,” Olmert said in his keynote address.

But Iran was not the only issue Olmert picked to criticize the current government. While elaborating on his vision for peace, the former prime minister placed the ball in the Israeli government’s court for its failure in advancing the peace process. A heckler in the audience (later identified as Zionist Organization of America activist Dr. Alan Mazurek) interrupted Olmert by yelling “go home” in Hebrew. Olmert noticed, and responded, “I went home. I just wonder whether those who replaced me are making the right decisions.”

The boos intensified throughout the former PM’s speech, as Olmert‘s provocative remarks were met with shouts of “Naïve!” and “Neville Chamberlain!”. Not pre-screening the crowd to determine his audience, or bluntly enjoying the confrontation as a provocateur, Olmert called for a less confrontational stance toward President Obama. 

“You have to respect him,” Olmert said of Obama, according to The New York Times. “He is the president of the most powerful nation on earth, and happens to be a friend of Israel.” When boos rang through the conference room in response, he joked, “I can see that this hall is full of Democrats.”
Responding to a question at a panel later in the afternoon, Olmert emphasized that Obama did not cut U.S. aid to Israel during the economic crisis, event though the aid was promised years ago by former President George W. Bush. 

“Is it a coincidence?” Olmert asked. “Is it hostility or friendship? Why is Bush, who supported the ‘67 borders and was in favor of a divided Jerusalem, considered a friend of Israel, while Obama is considered an enemy?” he asked.

Dagan and Erdan Spar over Diskin

The room filled with smoke as the panelists sparred over the public debate on Israel’s intention to strike Iran, its inevitability or irresponsible character, and the efficacy of public criticism of the government. Critics of Israel criticism claim such untimely remarks can sometimes damage Israel’s interests and harm her security. 

Former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan and Cabinet Minister Gilad Erdan, in particular, traded barbs and name calling over recent comments made by former Shin Bet (Intelligence) Chief Yuval Diskin. Diskin spoke at a Majdi Forum in Kfar Saba late last week, saying that Minister Barak and PM Netanyahu are guided by “messianic” impulses and lying about the projected effectiveness of an Israeli strike on Iran.

“There’s a false image being presented to the public, and that’s what bothers me,” Diskin said.  “[Netanyahu and Barak] are giving the sense that if Israel doesn’t act, Iran will have nuclear weapons…they turn to the – sorry for the expression – the ‘stupid public’ or the layman public… and tell them if Israel acts, there won’t be [an Iranian] nuclear program.”

Dagan, who was recently criticized for saying that “An aerial attack against Iran’s nuclear reactors would be foolish”— and continued throughout the conference to make his case against a unilateral Israeli strike— defended Diskin’s remarks, saying Diskin was a serious man and spoke his own internal truth.

“I know from first hand, that those points of view were presented by him to the prime minister and defense minister on many occasions,” Dagan noted.

Dagan objected the amendment proposed in the Knesset last year, dubbed the “Dagan Law,” that would restrict public comments by former security officials, calling it offensive.

“As in Germany, you know where you begin but you don’t know where you end,” Dagan told Minister Erdan.

But Erdan explained how criticism is healthy and necessary at certain times, but not at others.

“We are a democracy,” Erdan responded. “If [Diskin] thought that our policy is so dangerous for the future of Israel— in order to save Israel— Diskin should have resigned, instead of waiting five years before making his comments.”

Erdan went on to point out that Diskin decided to speak out against Netanyahu because the person Diskin wanted to succeed him at Shin Bet was not given the post.

“It’s not true. You are a liar,” Dagan interrupted him. “I may be impolite, but I prefer that ministers of the state of Israel would speak the truth.”
“I prefer that heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet will not do damage to our efforts,” Erdan pushed back. “Netanyahu is doing a lot of efforts to raise awareness, and you go out and say you should be doing this or that [with your uncontrolled criticism].”

Ashkenazi Calls for Tougher Sanctions

Addressing the timetable Israel has to execute an effective and timely strike on Iran’s facilities, former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi claimed Israel “still has time.” He stressed that “it is better to persuade our friends in the world and the region that Iran is a global threat.”
But Ashkenazi also called for tough sanctions on Iran.

“We need crippling sanctions and much more severe sanctions,” he said. “It might now be too late … [Sanctions need] to be supported by a credible military threat on the table.”

Columnist Isi Leibler, former head of the Australian Jewish community, rebuked Olmert at a later panel for publicly criticizing the current government.
“A former prime minister of Israel took everything in the book to criticize the present government,” he said. “There’s a lot we have to learn about a certain amount of restraint and dignity.”

Despite the talk about an Israeli strike, Cabinet Minister Gilad Erdan told a group of Likud supporters Monday to focus on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public statements, citing Bibi’s recent speech at AIPAC. Netanyahu never openly suggested Israel strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, Erdan noted. Rather, the prime minister is trying to elucidate the Iranian nuclear threat, and the immunity terror organizations would have under an Iranian nuclear umbrella, for popular understanding.

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