Israeli President Shimon Peres officially opened the four-day conference in Jerusalem by highlighting Israel’s crucial role in the stability of the Middle East. Addressing the upcoming visit of United States President Barack Obama to Israel, he praised Obama as a true leader who is “serious about preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons–not because of Israel, rather because of America’s best interests.”
The Conference of Presidents is the central coordinating body representing 52 Jewish organizations on issues of national and international concern. This year represents the 39th leadership mission to Israel. The delegation is led by the Chairman of the Conference of Presidents, Richard Stone; its Executive Vice Chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein; and Conference Past Chairman, Mort Zuckerman, who is chairing the 2013 delegation. The conference featured addresses from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, party leaders Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, Naftali Bennett, Yair Shamir, and Isaac Herzog, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Supreme Court President Asher Grunis, and other parliamentary, military, and public figures.
The group arrived in Israel after completing a tour of the Jewish communities in France, where they met with the French prime minister, president, and foreign minister.
Speaking to the delegates on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Israel as a “solid and reliable ally for the United States,” saying, “We work together very closely–even closer than meets the eye–on security, diplomacy and intelligence issues.” The Prime Minister laid out what he views as the three critical issues facing Israel at this time: Iran, Syria, and currently stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. “Iran is putting itself in a position to cross the red line I drew at the UN and will soon have enough material to produce one nuclear bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium,” the prime minister said. “This has to be stopped, for the interest of peace and security, and for the interest of the entire world.”
While noting the terrible suffering of the citizens in Syria, Netanyahu stressed, “I said it before and I’ll say it again, we cannot allow these stockpiles of weapons to fall into terrorist hands.”
Netanyahu, joking with the audience, expressed his amazement that all the organizations at the conference are able to “set aside differences and find common ground. That’s almost as hard as forming a unity government.”
MK Yair Lapid, addressing the conference said, “If we move our fathers’ biographies a half an inch to the left, I could be you and you could be me. We are part of something. If gravestones are desecrated in a cemetery in Ukraine, it is happening to me. If a Jew is murdered in the street in France, it is happening to me. You are here today because if something happens in Israeli politics, it happens to you.”
Explaining the platform of his party, Yesh Atid, he stated, “I want to do everything in my power to ensure the equality of all movements of Judaism in Israel–in conversion, in budgets, in the eyes of the law. No one can claim ownership over the Jewish law. I will do everything in my power to get civil marriages in Israel. The complete dominance of the Orthodox rabbis is an insult to every stream of Judaism.”
Regarding the peace process, he said, “There is no other game than the two-state solution. If not, we will not have a Jewish state in the immediate future. Therefore we must separate to ensure Jewish state. I am against the withdrawal from Jerusalem. I will keep Jerusalem united.”
MK Naftali Bennett addressed the American delegates saying, “We have a lot to learn in Israel from you about accepting many colors, many different flavors, and not judging people by the size of their kippah. We in Israel are a bit too tribal and that is something we want to solve. It’s time to stop hating. Stop hating Arabs, chareidim, the non-religious, settlers. The new generation is fed up with the hatred. While we don’t necessarily see a partner for peace, we certainly don’t want more war. But wishing a conflict away doesn’t make it go away. When we make profound mistakes again and again it’s time to take a new approach. Israel has a very rare opportunity. Thirty percent of first-graders are chareidim. The Torah world is vital for Israel. Torah is the reason that we are here. We can’t give that up.”
In her address, Tzipi Livni, chairman of HaTnua, expressed her feeling that “we have not exhausted all possible opportunities to promote the two-state solution. While the Palestinian government is weak, they are still a partner for negotiations. It’s as if Abbas has signature rights on a bank account which is empty. But I need their signature now, even if they can’t deliver on it now.”
MK Rabbi Meir Porush of the United Torah Judaism Party told the delegates that UTJ supports only those that are fully committed to Torah; those that study Torah are protectorates of the State and should be supported.
“Ever since the second Knesset, United Torah Judaism has been a constant in the Knesset. Other groups that rebrand themselves to get into power and this time they created the phrase ‘sharing the burden’ and included the army draft in it. If the real issue was about finding a way to live together, then we would find a way to live together. UTJ cannot allow a situation where someone who wishes to learn Torah cannot do so.”
Regarding conversions, he said, “We must abide by what the Torah tells us and there are clear laws about who is a Jew. People can live in this country and not be Jewish, such as Druze, and they have full rights.”
Also addressing the opening night of the conference was U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro. Shapiro saluted the Conference of Presidents for strengthening ties between the American community and the United States and Israeli governments. The ambassador said that the choice of Israel for the first visit of President Obama’s second term “is emblematic of the strong and unbreakable bilateral relationship between the United States and Israel. His visit here will indicate to countries in this region the close and unbreakable ties between Israel and the U.S.”
Regarding peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Shapiro added, “We believe that Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state is dependent on a two-state solution. Our new Secretary of State reiterated this in his first call in his new position to both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas.”
Summarizing the goals of the Conference and its 39th annual mission to Israel, Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein stated his hope that the “leadership of the Jewish community represented here become better educated and informed about the truths on the ground in Israel. They need to be able to communicate to their members the facts. By seeing and hearing for themselves from all the different points of view, they can best consider the issues and see how to better help and advocate for Israel.” v