Hillary Clinton is running for President. And the Israeli political class is a full-blown train wreck. These are two conclusions, for whatever they are worth, based on a three-day conference I attended this weekend at the annual Saban Forum, in Washington, D.C.
A word about the scene: Haim Saban, an Israeli-American media and entertainment mogul, has for the past nine years been hosting a conference, sometimes in Jerusalem, more often in Washington, focussed on the Middle East. The attendees are mainly government officials, present and former; business people; institute-niks; a few reporters. There are very few Arabs; this year the most notable exception was Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, though he didn’t stick around long, since the Palestinian Authority, thanks in large measure to Israel, is in grave peril, losing ground all the time to Hamas. Except for a few events, Chatham House rules obtain: meaning that the official events are off the record. The presumption is that the incidental meetings are more important than the panels and speeches. Friday night, however, was on the record—and surprisingly revealing. Hillary Clinton was the main speaker. In a packed ballroom of the Willard Hotel, she was greeted with a standing ovation and then a short, adoring film, a video Festschrift testifying to her years as First Lady, senator, and, above all, Secretary of State. The film, an expensive-looking production, went to the trouble of collecting interviews with Israeli politicians—Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni—and American colleagues, like John Kerry. Tony Blair, striking the moony futuristic note that was general in the hall, said, “I just have an instinct that the best is yet to come.” The film was like an international endorsement four years in advance of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. The tone was so reverential that it resembled the sort of film that the Central Committee of the Communist Party might have produced for Leonid Brezhnev’s retirement party if Leonid Brezhnev would only have retired and the Soviets had been in possession of advanced video technology. After it was over there was a separate video from the President. Looking straight into the camera, Obama kvelled at length: “You’ve been at my side at some of the most important moments of my Administration.”
When the videos were over (and as the evening moved on), there was much chatter about what Clinton would do after she steps down from the Cabinet next month—get a haircut; take a few weeks sleeping off jet lag at Canyon Ranch; read the polls and the political landscape; do good works; do good works for the good people of, say, Iowa—and so on. Everyone had a theory of which they were a hundred percent certain. There wasn’t much doubt about the ultimate direction. 2007-8 was but a memory and 2016 was within sight. She’s running.
“I am somewhat overwhelmed, but I’m obviously thinking I should sit down,” Clinton said as the videos concluded. “I prepared some remarks for tonight, but then I thought maybe we could just watch that video a few more times. And then the next time, I could count the hairstyles, which is one of my favorite pastimes.” An old joke with Hillary, but the crowd, tickled to be there, rosy with wine, roared.
All kinds of circumstances could intervene between now and 2016 to derail her—politics, health, family matters, a renewed Clinton fatigue—but Hillary’s numbers are enormous, her ambition equal to her capacities, and she was in high political gear. She proceeded to give a serious, sturdy speech of a certain kind; if not quite AIPAC-ready, it was a speech extremely careful not to ruffle anyone’s delicate feelings or becloud her last days as Secretary of State. She asked of Israel only that it show more “generosity” to the Palestinians. She was quick to point out that, both in the recent Gaza crisis and then in the U.N. vote on Palestine’s non-member observer status, “we had Israel’s back.” She pointed out that the U.S. had “underwritten” Iron Dome, the missile-defense program that protected Israeli territory from rockets fired from Gaza.
But as the coming days would prove, the Netanyahu government repaid American diplomatic allegiance by doing precisely what would embarrass and anger the Obama Administration most: first, by announcing new settlement activity in the West Bank and then by punishing the Palestinian Authority financially by withholding tax receipts. And yet the Israelis have been quick to rebuff any talk of a crisis in U.S.—Israel relations; all the talk is of “shared values” and “your only ally in the region.”
Clinton only prodded Israel gently, but was quicker to poke the Palestinians. “The Palestinians could have had a state as old as I am, in 1947,” she said, during a short question-and-answer session. And then she spoke, without any complicating details, about how Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak offered a comprehensive deal to Arafat in 2000 and how Ehud Olmert did the same to Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu was not at the Saban Forum, but his notorious foreign minister and hard-right-wing coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman was. Lieberman, who has a history of making vicious remarks about Israeli Arabs and a range of other subjects, is rarely made available for interviews with the foreign press; the chance of embarrassment and international incident is too high. But here he was, in D.C., as Clinton’s pre-dinner opening act. Lieberman, who was born in the U.S.S.R. and lives on a settlement, was interviewed onstage by NPR’s Robert Siegel. “Everyone wanted me to be politically correct,” Lieberman said as he settled into a chair onstage. “I’ll do my best.”
And so he did. Lieberman avoided any language that would fly into the headlines as racist or xenophobic. A keen and intelligent interviewer, Siegel seemed uncharacteristically reluctant to press Lieberman very hard or bring up Lieberman’s history of indelicacies where Arabs are concerned. Lieberman speaks English with a distinct accent, but he is fluent—and he was especially fluent in the talking points of the Netanyahu government. “Settlements are not an obstacle to peace. The opposite is true.” “Israel has never interfered in the internal domestic politics of any country.” False, darkly comical, but not especially inflammatory, not by his standards, anyway. Later in his performance, Lieberman managed to amuse himself when he said that the main problem for the Palestinians was not Israel or occupation but rather the fact that for the Palestinians the average income does not approach ten thousand dollars a year and that there is scant acquaintance in Ramallah or Rafah with the works of Voltaire and Rousseau. That forty-five years of grinding occupation may play a role in the depressed economy of Gaza City or in the modest enthusiasm for “Candide” and “Emile” in Jenin seemed not to enter Lieberman’s smug analysis.
On Saturday, there were off-the-record panels and an off-the-record onstage conversation with Bill Clinton at the Folger Shakespeare Library. But, there was an on-the-record post-dinner conversation with Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu’s predecessor and, now, ferocious enemy.
Olmert is a former hardliner, a Revisionist and Likudnik, who, as prime minister, moved distinctly and courageously to the left on the Palestinian issue, but was also widely distrusted for the disastrous 2006 war in Lebanon and Operation Cast Lead, in Gaza, two years later. His poll numbers were sometimes so low that they were within the margin of error of zero. Olmert, who has been plagued with legal problems since leaving politics, has been flirting with getting back into the game—a jovial egotist, he palpably aches to make a comeback—but how he proposes to do that, considering his miserable showing in current public opinion polls, his legal “challenges,” and much else, is the question. His onstage interrogator, David Ignatius of the Washington Post, led off by asking Olmert if he was going to get into the January 22nd Israeli elections. Olmert, delighted to be asked, said that he could not answer such a question abroad; he would have an announcement in Jerusalem early next week. Israeli sources tell me that Olmert wants terribly to run, but he is in no position to do so and most likely will not.
Throughout the day, particularly among Americans with ties to Democratic Administrations, there was a great deal of despairing hallway talk about the state of Israeli politics—the stark contrast between the vitality of Israeli economic, cultural, and academic life, and the miserable state of its political culture, the poverty of skill, talent, and imagination. The centrists and center-liberals at the conference—Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, and others—were so obviously in the eclipse and their rhetoric was tired and scattered. Their sense of defeat and frustration was distinct.
Olmert, who has a legacy to defend and an ego to feed, was clear and alive, but even when he was right on the issues, he undermined himself with his bombast. He rightly slammed Netanyahu for giving Obama a “slap in the face” over the weekend and mocked the prime minister for pretending to be friends with Obama after being his “enemy” in the Presidential campaign just a few weeks ago.” Olmert called Mitt Romney’s campaign trip to Israel—which featured a fundraiser with Sheldon Adelson, who also owns a pro-Netanyahu newspaper—completely “inappropriate…It was made to create the impression among Jewish American voters that Romney was riding to the White House on the shoulders of Israel.” And yet he undermined himself in every self-intoxicated gesture and self-adoring rhetorical turn.
Olmert also violated the rules of the conference by dragging something that was off the record onto the record. He accurately, if generally, described how, earlier in the day, Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and Obama’s former chief of staff, had spoken angrily and bluntly about the way Netanyahu has repeatedly betrayed the friendship of the United States, lecturing Obama in the Oval Office and now, after the U.S. had underwritten the Iron Dome anti-missile system, supported the operation in Gaza, and voted Israel’s way in the U.N., embarrassing the Obama Administration by taking punitive actions against the Palestinian Authority. After describing Emanuel’s remarks, Olmert went on to agree with them.
Olmert was unflinching in his criticism of Netanyahu. “This government is not dedicated to the cause of peace in a realistic way,” he said. “The most important thing for a prime minister,” he said, any Israeli prime minister, is to create two states for two peoples. What was striking was that Israeli politics is now utterly dominated by Netanyahu, Lieberman, and an increasingly rightist coalition. And, demographically, the Israeli electorate is only getting more conservative.
Meanwhile, there is no peace in sight; the Palestinian Authority is losing ground to Hamas (“In their terms, Hamas has delivered and we have not,” Salam Fayyad admitted to me.) And the region is growing more unpredictable and explosive. Even a politician with the talent of a Roosevelt, would be hard pressed to navigate Israel in this predicament. What Israel has is Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman.
After Olmert’s session was over, the night concluded with, and I am not making this up, Joseph Lieberman, the soon-to-be-retired senator from Connecticut, and Yossi Vardi, the Israeli digital entrepreneur, doing stand-up comedy onstage. I will spare you the details—even though no one called Chatham House Rules—but suffice to say that Joe Lieberman telling dirty jokes involving pickles is not necessarily the experience of a lifetime.
In the morning there were more panels. And then there was a lunch. They were off the record.