HERZLIYA, Israel, Dec. 13 (JTA) -- In one corner of the sun-drenched lobby, one of Israel's senior television journalists shared a joke with the head of Israel's largest pharmaceutical company. In another, Mossad officials mingled with ambassadors and Knesset members.
Welcome to Israel's Herzliya Conference.
The annual gathering of Israel's political and security elite has become the place not only to see and be seen, but the forum for setting the upcoming year's public-policy agenda.
At last year's conference, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his plan for unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The previous year, he announced he would accept the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
This year all eyes again are on Sharon's address to the conference, which was scheduled for Thursday. Also expected this year is an alternative blueprint for peace with Syria that does not include a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
Uzi Arad, a former senior Mossad official who served as Benjamin Netanyahu's foreign policy adviser, chairs the conference, which is sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center Herzilya, a private college aiming to be one of Israel's top academic institutions.
Arad compares the prime minister's address at the close of every conference, now in its fifth year, to a State of the Union address in the United States.
Last year a series of important statements by senior politicians prompted Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin to complain that the lawmakers never made similar high-level speeches in the Knesset.
Arad said the conference has become a more natural setting than the Knesset for major policy speeches because of the caliber of the 1,000 or so people who attend the four-day gathering, which began Monday.
"When he addresses the group gathering in Herzliya, the Israeli prime minister considers them his peers," Arad told JTA. "The concentration of influence and power is several-fold more powerful than the Knesset. Here are all the captains of industry, presidents of universities, chiefs of the intelligence community."
"It's the most influential and senior members of the Israeli establishment" who come to the conference, Arad said. "In short, it is the establishment."
The conference also draws top international names. Among the speakers this year are Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission; Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations; and Nicolas Sarkozy, head of France's ruling UMP party and a former interior and finance minister.
Stanley Roth, Boeing's vice president of international relations, said he came to the conference because of the caliber of people attending.
"It's the mix that is so attractive: You meet people from industry and senior government people," said Roth, who formerly served as an assistant U.S. secretary of state. "There are also the discussions and the side conversations."
Dan Shilon, a political analyst and anchor for three current affairs television programs, hosted a panel on the relationship between the media and the state. He said people at the top of their fields like to be brought together in a formal setting to discuss the country's direction.
"Every democratic society needs a forum for public discussion in an effective and dignified way, and most discussions in Israel are neither effective nor dignified," Shilon said.
Among the topics discussed at the conference are Israel's national security, intelligence, prospects for economic growth, national policy toward the Arab minority and nuclear proliferation.
There also are discussions on lower-profile issues such as development of the Negev. The Jewish National Fund will present a plan for developing the Negev that would include building roads, parks and recreation areas in an effort to attract 25,000 new residents over five years.
On Wednesday, half the day was to be devoted to international issues such as strengthening Diaspora-Jewish relations, Jewish education and trends in the Jewish world. The chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sallai Meridor, was to speak about the future of the Jewish people.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was to speak about the role of American Jewry in U.S.-Israel relations.
Mingling with government officials in the lobby, Hoenlein said, "What's happening in the hallways is what really matters."
On Monday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz made the conference's first headlines when he told a packed hall that Israel would consider giving the Palestinian Authority security responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza Strip ahead of the planned withdrawal from Gaza next year. The move would be conditional on the Palestinians effectively stopping terrorist activity, which has continued unabated since Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's death last month, Mofaz said.
Another topic likely to make waves at the conference was the idea of multilateral territorial swaps. Gideon Biger, a Tel Aviv University geography professor, was scheduled to speak on the proposal, which envisions Egypt giving part of northern Sinai to the Palestinians and Israel giving the Egyptians a portion of the Negev and a passage to Jordan as part of a possible future peace deal. In exchange, Israel would keep parts of the West Bank.
Biger admits the idea seems somewhat fantastical, but noted that everyone initially thought Theodor Herzl's vision of a Jewish homeland in Palestine was far-fetched. Territorial swaps eventually might be accepted as the answer to the dilemmas of territorial compromise, he said.
"Maybe the ideas won't be accepted today, but maybe tomorrow. After all, all the efforts to reach peace until now have not worked so well," he said.
Biger said the Herzilya conference was the ideal place to float innovative ideas and strategies.
"Ultimately it is a catalyst, a driving force because people can come here and learn about issues not discussed in public really anywhere else," he said. "It's a place to move issues onto the national agenda."
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