JERUSALEM – The fifth Presidential Conference, called Tomorrow 2013, officially began last night with a gala celebration of Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday. The event began with an affectionate speech from Tony Blair lauding Peres’ efforts to establish security for Israel and peace in the region. Benjamin Netanyahu paid tribute to Peres’ efforts to build Israel into a nation capable of defending itself. “Peace favors the strong,” Netanyahu said Peres taught him. “No one will make peace with a weak Israel.” Bill Clinton provided the high emotional point of the evening, starting off with a gentle joke about Peres’ age — “We are here to celebrate the last living Israeli who knew King David.” Clinton hailed Peres as a man who knew how to work with his political opponents, a quality whose lack Clinton lamented in the US. “What we are here to celebrate,” Clinton said, “is your great gift to all of us.”
A number of video and musical tributes followed, most of which involved Israeli performers, but the final act was a live performance by Barbra Streisand. Streisand didn’t speak about politics, preferring to pay tribute through song; she sang a song in Hebrew, a prayer for peace, and her signature song “People.” Whatever anyone thinks about her politics, Streisand’s voice is still spectacular, and the audience gave her two standing ovations.
Tony Blair also opened the plenary session on leadership on the first morning of Tomorrow 2013. Winning elections turns out to be the easiest part of leadership, Blair told the audience; it’s the “What now?” after winning. The skills that serve one best in elections are not the same qualities that provide leadership. One has to learn to embrace responsibility, work against the popular grain, and seize moments of opportunity even if that causes short-term damage to one’s political standing. “Leaders are decision makers and decision takers,” Blair said. “Do what you believe to be right, even if it’s unpopular.”
Blair then turned to this region, which he noted had historically “low predictability.” The West wants to stay out of Syria now, but Blair warned that the cost of inaction will be higher in the long run than the price for intervention now. On the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Blair insisted that a two-state solution is the only realistic goal. A one-state outcome is entirely fanciful, Blair advised, no matter which side believes it. The conference greeted that statement enthusiastically.
Blair concluded by observing that the true political divide today isn’t really Left/Right but the open-minded and closed-minded. True leadership requires producing open minds.
Rahm Emanuel spoke about leadership in the American context. “The first thing I always look at in leadership is failure,” Emanuel said. Everyone fails, but “what do they learn from it?” Abraham Lincoln was our greatest President, but he only got there through a series of failures. He won the Civil War only after a series of failures, too. He also offered up a line that became more infamous in the United States, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” as an explanation of the opportunities for leadership to emerge.