If the opening plenary session of the Israeli Presidential Conference suffered from a lack of seriousness, the second and final plenary session of the first day brought gravitas by the truckload.  Titled “Nation, Interests, and Ethics in the Journey Towards Tomorrow,” it featured a speech by Israeli President Shimon Peres and a series of talks by Tony Blair, Bernard-Henri Levy, and Professor Amos Oz, moderated by television anchorman Oren Nahari.  The remarks from all were certainly provocative on a series of ethical questions that changed a bit with each speaker.

Peres received a standing ovation when he took the podium, and expressed his optimism that the peace process has not irretrievably collapsed.  He called on both the Israeli government and the Palestinians to return to direct negotiations (a faint wish on both parts at this point) and insisted that the region is still closer to peace than war.  “I can see the end of the process,” Peres said. “I remain a believer.”

He didn’t eschew criticism of the Palestinians and their backers.  Peres blasted Iran and the “shadow” it casts over the region with its funding of Hamas and Hezbollah, and called the five-year kidnapping of Gilad Shalit “a disgrace to human dignity.”

Still, Peres sounded a couple of discordant notes, especially the notion that “in the void of world government, self-government is the best alternative.”  Given Israel’s precarious position, one might think that the last thing an Israeli would wish is rule by the UN or any other body remotely like it.  The entire raison d’être of Israel is to allow Jews to have a homeland that they can secure against the rest of the world, borne out of obvious necessity by the ghastly Holocaust that killed six million Jews in supposedly enlightened Europe.  Peres got a warm and respectful reception at the end of his speech, but whether or not that was a factor, few stood as he walked off stage.

In fact, I had a delightful conversation with my airport transportation driver on the way to the conference.  He and his wife are natives of Israel, and his father fought in the War of Independence.  His three sons all served, the driver proudly told me, and he shared that Israelis often send teenagers to visit the extermination camps, at least those that are left.  That impresses on young Israelis the need to serve their country and to fight to remain free when necessary.

Blair had the most interesting speech, and perhaps the most timely.  Nahari challenged him on interventions by the West in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, while noting the “embarrassment” of the world’s shrug at Syria for doing pretty much what Moammar Gaddafi did in Libya.  Blair sidestepped that question — one cannot imagine a retired Prime Minister going after a successor on that point, especially while the UK is still engaged against Gaddafi — but did argue that idealism and pragmatism are not always separate.  “In an interconnected, independent world,” Blair said, national interests can and often do “represent values.”

Action has its consequences, but Blair also warned that inaction is an explicit decision with consequences of its own.  In this, Blair explicitly mentioned the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons and warned that a failure to act that resulted in mullahs being armed with nukes would have catastrophic consequences.  Blair proudly called himself a “liberal interventionist” and insisted that interventions tailored to specific and achievable ends that promote values of freedom and liberty are a valid expression of those national values.

The former British PM also defended Western support for Israel in rather unique terms.  Neocons in the US often express the hope that Iraq can serve as a model to the rest of the Arab nations, but Blair said that Israel is “a model for the region.”  “Come and see what Israel has done in 60 years,” Blair said to thunderous applause, pointing out that it’s Israel’s freedom that allowed for its advances.  “Freedom is not a passing phase,” Blair emphasized, “it is the condition that defines the human spirit.”  And for that, Blair got the standing ovation at the end that he also received at the beginning.

Note: The Israeli Presidential Conference is covering my travel expenses.