A few hours ago, Israel's Vice Prime Minister Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon wrapped up a fascinating 1 hour, 30 minute appearance at the 2010 Epicenter conference in Philadelphia. I'm here with the CBN News team covering the two-day event, which focuses on Bible prophecy, Israel, and the Middle East, and is organized each year by New York Times bestselling author Joel Rosenberg.
This year's edition of Epicenter is being held at Philly's Kimmel Center, and has featured an all-star lineup of evangelical Christian leaders and media personalities, including Rosenberg, Ret. Lt. General William "Jerry" Boykin, nationally syndicated radio host Janet Parshall, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and "the Billy Graham of Iran" Hormoz Shariat.
But Yaalon was undoubtedly the most anticipated speaker for the roughly 1,500 in attendance and 20,000 tuning in via satellite from around the world. I'll be filing a report on the conference for Tuesday's edition of The 700 Club, but I wanted to fill everyone in right away on what I think was a very newsworthy speech by Yaalon, who is the second highest ranking official in the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yaalon received no less than three rousing standing ovations at Epicenter--one lasting for at least two minutes and punctuated by raucous cheers of support. As a former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Yaalon has a reputation for being a serious man who's as tough as they come. But he appeared genuinely impressed and appreciative of the outpouring of love and affection he received from the Epicenter audience.
He gave it right back with some kind words for evangelical Christians throughout his almost one hour speech, which was followed by a hard-hitting Q and A session with Rosenberg in which "Bogie" addressed everything from Iranian nukes to Turkey's Islamist turn to the state of U.S./Israel relations.
Below are some of the highlights from a riveting afternoon with the Vice Prime Minister.
Yaalon began his speech by outlining Israel's four primary strategic challenges:
1) The growing radical Islamic order in the world, with the Iran/Syria/Hezbollah/Hamas/Palestinian Islamic Jihad axis on one hand (and Turkey's increased orientation toward that group), and the Al Qaeda/Taliban wing of the worldwide jihadist movement on the other.
2) The international effort to de-legitimize Israel's very existence, which Yaalon said is being spearheaded by radical Islamists, the radical Left and Arab nationalists.
3) The international acceptance of the "Palestinian narrative," which casts Israel as the colonialist occupiers and Palestinians as eternally oppressed victims (the Helen Thomas worldview).
4) Last, and perhaps most importantly, Yaalon listed maintaining Israel's "close and special relationship" with the United States and "closing gaps which may have temporarily opened "between the two sides."
Yaalon said that intelligence sharing and cooperation between the U.S. and Israel saves American and Israeli lives on a daily basis.
"Divided we are weak," he said. "And our enemies can take advantage of us. Only through unity can we defeat the forces of radical Islam. And only through unity can we succeed in empowering the moderate elements of Palestinian society and other Arab societies so crucial to attaining peace."
Yaalon added: "In the coming months, we are going to see decisive moments in each of these areas."
He went on to warn that Israel is going to see "more attacks, in the form of more flotillas and in other forms to provoke friction and deprive Israel from its right to self defense."
-- Yaalon went on to say that "any Palestinian entity must be demilitarized, with an Israeli military presence on its eastern borders," adding that the Netanyahu government is "committed to keeping Jerusalem open to all religions, united as the capital of the state of Israel."
He also called on the Palestinians to "categorically" renounce the so-called "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to Israel and to recognize Israel's right to exist as a nation state.
-- Yaalon quoted U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' estimate that Iran is 1-3 years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon and added that Iran is "mocking the West." He said that "any American hopes of attracting Syria, Lebanon, or Turkey away from Iran would effectively be dead" if Iran acquires the bomb.
-- Yaalon called for making "intensive dialogue" between Israel and the United States "deeper and, based more on empathy on both sides. Both of them have to show more readiness to listen to the other and understand and respect the concerns and the logic of the other."
"There is hope to believe,' he continued. "That the coming meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu (in Washington, D.C., July 6) will send this message of closing the gaps."
Fascinating stuff all around. Things got even more interesting during the Q and A session.
-- Yaalon stated that "by one way or the other, the military nuclear project in Iran should be stopped -- the sooner, the better."
Yaalon said (surprisingly, I thought) that he believes when forced to choose between the bomb and survival, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadenijad would choose survival. When asked to elaborate by Rosenberg, Yaalon said the Supreme Leader Ali Khameini ultimately makes the decisions in Iran, not A-jad.
He stated that in 2003, in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Khameini decided to suspend Iran's nuclear program. He said that Iran restarted its nuclear program in 2005, when the regime realized, in Yaalon's words, that "the United States lost its political stomach."
--Yaalon said bluntly that he believes Iran's regime is "not sure that there is a will" on the part of the United States right now to exercise the military option against Iran's nuclear facilities.
-- When asked if he felt the Obama administration was open to military action against Iran, Yaalon said that, according to the traditions of Israel's forefathers, righteous people hope that the job might be done by others.
On the other hand, he said, there is another old saying that goes like this: "If I'm not for myself, then who is for me?" He added, "So we should be ready."
-- Yaalon believes there is still time to stop Iran's nuclear program through non-military means, but that it depends on the West.
-- Yaalon believes that the Russian government and the Iranian regime have in the past had a "kind of modus vivendi," with Russia supporting Iran under the condition that Iran would not be involved in terrorist activity in the former Soviet states. He said, though, that he is encouraged by Russia's willingness to get on board with sanctions against Iran.
-- In one of the strongest rebukes yet of the increased Islamist belligerence of Turkey's Prime MInister Erdogan, Yaalon said "in the last eight years, Prime MInister Erdogan of Turkey actually gradually moved Turkey from being a secular democracy to, in a way even, an Islamic republic. This is a dramatic change."
Yaalon said that Erdogan has to make up his mind whether he wants to be "connected with the West, or whether he prefers to go to the Islamic camp."
-- Yaalon called the acceptance by "Western, like-minded people" of Islamist campaigns against Israel's existence "immoral."
-- In a story that had the audience hanging on every word, Yaalon recounted how his wife's great-grandparents walked--walked!--from Morocco to Israel at the end of the 19th century. Yaalon said that it took them two years to complete their journey on foot.
--The Q and A session closed with Yaalon saying that Israelis and evangelical Christians are "all in the same boat," and stating firmly that the Israeli government wants to continue to strengthen its relationship with evangelicals.
What a day. More to come with my 700 Club report from the conference, airing on Tuesday, June 29.