The first Globes business conference kicked off seven years ago with a burst of optimism. Meanwhile, the peace process, globalization and other sundry happy events have folded, but the conference soldiers on. Except for its cancellation in 2000 after the intifada resumed, and in 1997, the annual conference has been a great place to rub shoulders with the cream of the Israeli business scene.
This year participants were greeted by what's known as a handful of hopelessly unorganized protestors, facing roughly the same number of steely-faced police armed with barriers, vehicles and bored horses.
The dewy-eyed demonstrators waved red flags shrieking "Give us work", others brandished clearly home-made signs declaring "Go home, crooks" and yet others demanded rights for the Sephardic or home-owners or animals. Behind them glared a glitzy state-of-the-art giant video screen touting special weekend rates at the host Intercontinental Hotel affordable to all, including the protestors ¿ or, rather, their parents.
Spontaneous, useless. No tires burned, no violence was reported. Youngsters came straight from college or school, armed with backpacks crammed not with Molotov cocktails and rocks but their homework and little half-liter bottles of mineral water. For all their varied and wonderful provenance, they all had the same message: We've had enough, the gaps are too wide.
Not a word of their speeches penetrated the conference hall where the wealthy and great of the land clustered. This conference takes place at one of Israel's worst years, economically speaking, but the hall and lecture halls were crammed. The biggest companies, from Cellcom to Citibank to El Al, touted their sponsorships in the crowded rooms that sported ultra, but ultra, thin computer screens.
Everybody was there, from the press to the businessmen, household names one and all ¿ in Israel at least. Serial entrepreneur Yossi Vardi of ICQ fame circulated with his usual smile. Mikhail Chernoy sailed into the hall moments before the speeches began. Bank Discount's Arie Mientkavich took over a comfortable sofa in one corner. Kobi Alexander occupied another, protected by a wall of Comverse Technologies (Nasdaq:CMVT) people deflecting the press. But Comverse is going through hard times, surely¿ "No, Kobi won't talk with you, certainly not now."
Everybody ¿ except for foreigners, of course. Not one delegation from abroad. Truly a conference in the time of the cholera, economically speaking, of course.
During the keynote speeches, only two people mentioned the youthful protestors gallantly grouping outside. Both were politicians, of course: Ron Huldai, mayor of Tel Aviv, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Seeds of discord
The fact that Peres gave the keynote speech, not the prime minister or finance minister ¿ either of whom would have been more relevant to a business conference ¿ says it all, about why this year is different from all other years.
The arrival of Peres, who has just been elbowed out of talks with the Palestinians, demonstrated not only his growing discord with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon but also ¿ the growing discord of Finance Minister Silvan Shalom with the business community.
Shalom started his political career as a representative of the downtrodden. Since being named Finance Minister, he's lost it all: his downtrodden supporters, who were standing outside screaming slogans against him, and the businessmen sprawling on the armchairs inside.
Peres, for whom occasions like these are old hat, spoke magnificently as usual. In his unique style he managed to captivate the audience and utterly crush attempts at heckling.
For some time Peres has been supporting private consumption, doing it his way. More books, more restaurants, more gyms, Peres says. That's the way to build a healthier, more Western economy. He also spoke at length about hi-tech and the revolution it engendered in the marketplace in recent years.
"What is hi-tech?" Peres quipped. "It isn't what you think. You can't buy a computer, pick up some Internet and hey presto, you have hi-tech. The environment has to be right¿ Science and technology," he went on to reinterpret the rise and fall of the New Economy, "isn't a solution for everything. You can't marry technology and science with dirt in the streets and chaos on the roads."
You want foreign investors? Peres asked the audience. "You can't get them with opaque accounting practices." You need squeaky clean books to hook the foreign fish, he advised his listeners. Can't mix oil and water, science and technology with lies and squalor.
While preaching about society and industry in Israel, Peres also found time to slip in his usual knock-'em-down clichés that had the audience roaring in appreciation. "The Internet window is more important than eternal glory in military graveyards," he cried, to a storm of clapping, thus summing up the hi-tech section of his speech.
As said, he for one didn't ignore the protestors clamoring outside. "Who are the enemies of the poor?" he asked. "Not the rich, but the rulers!"
He didn't say which rulers he meant ¿ the ones from his declining Labor party? Or perhaps his superiors? who had managed to disengage him from yet another focus of power, the team negotiating peace with the Palestinians.