The Herzliya Conference – An Opportunity for the BRI in the Middle East

The Herzliya Conference (HC) is Israel’s premier policy event dealing with national, regional and global Western geopolitics. China and the BRI would benefit from having an increased presence at the HC. Throughout its seventeen-year history, the HC has addressed the most vital and strategically relevant regional issues from Arab Spring to ISIS, from US-Israel relations to waning US presence in the Middle East to discussing solutions to strife and refugees, regional instability and broader economic cooperation.

In recent years the HC has focused on global issues regarding the US, EU, NATO States such as rising global terror and multilateral economic development. The HC has been the epicenter of debate on globally significant issues from ‘Emerging Economic and Strategic Trends’, ‘The Age of Permanent Technological Revolution’ to domestic matters such as “Economic Resilience, Inequality and Public Corruption’ and ‘Personal Security and National Resistance.’

The annual conference continues to serve as an essential forum for debate and discussion in Israel on such topics as national identity politics, trade relations with Europe and the developing national energy sector. The HC has been extensively covered in Israeli and international media as it often hosts western leaders such as United States Former Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger (2016) and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (2012) (pictured left) to British Prime Minister Tony Blair (2017) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (2009) diplomats such as Amb. Bilahari Kausikan (2011) and Amb. Robert Hutchings, Former Director of the US National Intelligence Council (NIC); Dean, LBJ School of Public Affairs (2015) as well as globally security experts such as Nicola de Santis, Head, Middle East and North Africa Section, Political Affairs and Security Policy Division, NATO (2017) and Amos Hochstein, Former Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs at the U.S. Department of State (2017). The HC has become the venue for major Israeli strategic speeches and a focal point for influential voices to broadly engage with the Israeli public.’

Domestically, the HC has stood host to Former PM Ariel Sharon’s most significant foreign policy speeches in 2003 and 2004. PM Sharon used the HC to publically present his support of the ‘Road Map for Peace’ as well as the eventual Gaza disengagement. Notable remarks from Israeli PM Olmert in 2006, in which he backed the creation of a Palestinian state also utilized the HC. Annual representation of the Israeli parliamentary opposition such as Yair Lapid and Issac Herzog in 2017, to influential military leaders such as Gen Gadi Eisenkot (2017) and Gen Moshe Ya’alon (pictured left) (2017) is commonplace. Thus, the inclusion of a Chinese perspective in the HC could advance the aims of the BRI and Chinese interest in the Middle East among policy makers in Israel and the world. The HC offers China a unique opportunity to expand its reach west and bring an Asian perspective to one of the most significant gatherings of policy makers in the Middle East.

The HC impacts domestic policy in Israel and investment internationally. With the ability to utilize expansive media coverage and engage world leaders, the HC presents a prime venue for Chinese tacticians to articulate the mutually beneficial aims of BRI to the entire strata of Israeli society. To date, the participants and speakers of the HC have primarily originated from US, EU, Canada, UN, NATO. To better articulate a comprehensive worldview to Israeli decision makers the HC could greatly benefit from the insights of Chinese thinkers and scholars. By bringing an oriental perspective to the most significant gathering of policy makers in the Middle East, China could promote constructive dialog on the BRI within the HC.

The Herzliya Conference: A Brief History

The Herzliya Conference was initiated by SIGNAL Fellow, Dr. Uzi Arad, former National Security Advisor and Director of the Mossad (pictured right), in the year 2000 in cooperation with the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC), the Lauder School of Government and the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS). This multi-tiered platform to engage debate about the most pressing regional and global issues includes closed door sessions, public roundtables, panels and simulations. Past simulations involving multinational players covered such topics as ‘A Third Lebanese War – Preventable? Winnable?’ (2015) and ‘The Day after a Deal with Iran– Regional and Global implications (2014).

In its founding statements the HC was established with the aim of “taking stock of Israel’s national security across a wide range of dimensions: the military balance, international diplomatic environment, economic health, social fabric, quality of education, government performance, and the Jewish world.” Consequently, the HC has become the most important Israeli based forum to debate and discuss pragmatic solutions to regional conflicts and broader global threats, while also expressing its findings and solutions to the global audience. In its almost two-decade history the HC has expanded the national discourse on regional cooperation with Arab states as well as potential economic cooperation with Europe and Asia.

The 2017 Herzliya Conference: Israel’s Strategic Balance, Opportunities and Risks

The 2017 HC saw a dynamic collection of guided conversations, panels and roundtables with influential global thinkers, government insiders and world leaders. With topics ranging from “The Global Economy and Central Bank Policies” to “The Regional Opportunity in the Middle East”. The 2017 HC provided the impetus for valuable conversations about global economic policy directed by Prof Jacob A. Frenkel, the former Governor of the Bank of Israel, as well as the potential Mid East regional cooperation and the fight against terror led by such notable luminaries as Ambassador Denis Ross and Dr. Philip H. Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations. To provide insight from the military perspective on Israeli security, leading Israeli defense personalities such as Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, Former Head of the National Security Council, National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister and SIGNAL Fellow, as well as Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, Commander in Chief of the Israeli Air Force spoke at this year’s HC.

Under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Amos Gilead (pictured left), head of ISP, who is visiting Beijing in July 2017, the HC has reached a new level of diplomatic and political debate drawing in scholars across security, finance and international relations. Headlined by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Former British PM Tony Blair, the 2017 HC reflected a new level of perceived opportunity at building regional stability unseen in the conference’s history. In presenting the climate of regional cooperation to Israel and the World, Mr. Blair exemplified the reach and potential impact the HC provides. Missing in this year’s proceedings was a dynamic voice representing Chinese interests in the Middle East and the expansive projects and opportunities of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

Benefits to China and the BRI 

The HC presents an exceptional platform to present China’s views of the Middle East while building public momentum for the BRI’s western expansion. As China makes efforts to gain diverse regional partners to the BRI, the HC affords an important Middle East pulpit to project pragmatic policy perceptions to the people. As the diverse collection of speakers and topics illustrates, the HC offers a platform to convey the inherent added value of major policy projects, such as the BRI. For China, participation in the HC could increase its traction in the eastern Mediterranean basin and help China to better understand the west and vice versa.

Invested partners breed successful cooperation and potential for economic and political cohesion. To facilitate an increase in Israeli and regional interest in the projects, investments and multinational partnerships contained in the BRI, China could consider deep engagement of Israeli leaders and innovative thinkers. The HC presents a constructive forum to advance high-level dialog across political, financial and diplomatic domains. Therefore, China could use any number of the platforms within the HC to expand practical discussions on Israel’s involvement in the BRI. As China develops its strategic interests in the Middle East and the broader Mediterranean basin, the HC could be a productive tool to demystify the Middle Kingdom’s regional ambitions to the Israeli public. The HC provides the ideal locale for Chinese experts and scholars to participate in direct people to people communication with their global western counterparts, thereby solidifying the BRI as an essential global initiative, vital for Israeli and regional economic viability.

The HC hosts wide ranging debates on issues of regional stability as well as nuanced conversations about economic development and policy interconnectivity. For Chinese decision makers, the HC could be a necessary element in investing the Israeli population in the prospects of the BRI. As recent panels on ‘Emerging Strategic and Economic trends’ and ‘Regional Opportunities in the Middle East’ suggest, legitimate policy formulation and presentation are core aspects of the HC. In creating a forum to articulate and debate evolving national perspectives on regional and global threats, the HC could help Israel understand the strategic and economic potential of the BRI. In Israel, a pragmatic way to facilitate these aims would be to present the BRI throughout the HC.

Obstacles to China’s successful participation in the HC

The HC, as a western oriented policy conference, has ample experience hosting and accommodating leaders and experts from Europe and North America. As a result, the format and language of events has only English-Hebrew translation. This poses an obvious obstacle for Chinese participation. In order for China to best articulate its policy visions in the HC, representatives must have a high level of English. To fully join the panel discussions, English is a requirement. Another possible obstacle to China’s greater participation in the conference is that the HC host national leaders. As noted above, heads of state, foreign ministers, defense ministers etc. are featured speakers. Would China’s leaders of equivalent stature be available to participate as keynote speakers at the conference?

The Herzliya Conference: providing a vehicle to strengthen Sino-Israeli relations

As previous year’s proceedings have illustrated, the HC can provide a unique venue to distil regional and global security vision. The 2016 HC hosed a panel on “Global Crisis Management” featuring SIGNAL colleague, former Chinese Ambassador to Iran, Hua Liming invited by the conference in cooperation with SIGNAL. Ambassador Hua’s worldview, and Sino-centric approach to diplomacy and regional instability greatly expanded Israeli understanding of Chinese strategic thinking. Utilizing the HC as means to communicate PRC insight could increase synergy between Chinese and Israeli leaders. Just as Ambassador Hua used the HC as a conduit to impart Chinese geostrategic understanding other officials or thought leaders could do the same in the context of the BRI.

In 2017, CFAU Prof Su Hao, President of the Beijing Geopolitical Strategy and Development Association, participated in a riveting simulation concerning potential regional conflict in the Middle East. Prof Su’s insights into the conflict were new and refreshing for the Israeli and western participants. Israeli participants were given a more globalized view of conflict management techniques. Prof Su further gave credence to the potential value of Chinese insights in expanding broader understanding to the highest echelons of Israeli leadership and government leadership. According to Zvi Heifetz, Israel’s ambassador to China, “China and Israel are a great match of strategic partners, to provide ultimate and long-term benefits under the great economy of China and top technological innovations in R&D companies.” Consequently, forums which promote increased strategic understanding between China and Israel are worthwhile. If fully exploited, the HC could bring the economic and political dimensions of the BRI to the Israeli market while facilitating impactful exchange at all levels of Israeli society.

Additional Resources
The Herzliya Conference Official website
10 things we learned from Israel’s Herzliya conference on security
Minister calls on Riyadh to invite Netanyahu for peace talks

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