Saban Forum Highlights Anxiety and Anguish of U.S.-Israeli Rift

John Kerry’s powerful speech showed how Democrat America and many of its Jews feel powerless.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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In this Nov. 24, 2015 file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem.
In this Nov. 24, 2015 file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

At a recent Haaretz side session at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly, I hosted Peter Beinart for a conversation entitled “Israelis are from Mars, American Jews are from Venus.” A month later, our colorful caption was fully borne out by the 2015 Saban Forum, which highlighted the great gap between large parts of the American-Jewish and Democratic establishment and the powers that be in Israel’s ruling coalition.

From the audience’s point of view, the operative word was anguish. You could see it spreading on journalist Jeffrey Goldberg’s face as he interviewed former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. “It’s like Americans trying to warn Israelis that a train is coming while they’re still on the tracks,” he said. It reminded me of a similar expression of exasperation made famous under different circumstances by former Israeli politician Haim Ramon, who told his Labor Party, “Like a whale that has lost its sense of direction, you surge to the beach, seeking your own death. And I, with my feeble powers, am pushing you back into the water, but you resist, but you resist.”

Lieberman was definitely the designated shocker of the prestigious forum hosted annually by Los Angeles billionaire Haim Saban. “I don’t care,” he replied, with undisguised disdain, when Goldberg asked him about liberal students on campus who find it hard to defend Israeli policies. “I really don’t care,” Lieberman repeated, when pressed again, just to make sure. Goldberg, as well as the audience, couldn’t believe their ears.

But it wasn’t only Lieberman, who seems to get a kick out of upsetting his audience and being politically incorrect. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, otherwise professional, confident, down-to-earth and matter-of-fact, confounded listeners by promoting “modus vivendi” as a semi-permanent solution to the Palestinian problem, as if it was a novel diplomatic concept rather than a fancy word for the status quo. “It’s a one-and-a-half-state solution,” said an incredulous Martin Indyk, former Saban director and current vice president of the Brookings Institute, but Ya'alon hardly blinked.

The American audience’s collective angst, built up over years since Barack Obama came into office but exponentially enhanced in the Iran deal confrontation with Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed to find expression in the extraordinary speech given by Secretary of State John Kerry. His warnings about the dangerous one-state reality that awaits an Israel that rebuffs a two-state solution struck a deep chord in the audience, both in tone and in content. It was a powerful speech that nonetheless radiated powerlessness – not only Kerry’s but his listeners’ as well. It stood in stark contrast to the one delivered the next day by Saban favorite Hillary Clinton, in campaign mode, who extolled Israeli-U.S. ties and kept her dire warnings of Israel’s fate to a bare minimum.

The on-record confrontations with Lieberman and Ya'alon, as well as the off-record skirmishes with Habayit Hayehudi Minister Naftali Bennett and MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), often seemed like an enactment of the narrative that followed Netanyahu’s first electoral victory in 1996: The “old elites” coming face to face with the brash, up-and-coming forces of the new regime. Saban’s American contingent of Brookings scholars, former Democratic administration officials and members of Congress could have gotten along famously with the Israeli delegation of mainstream Israeli politicians, journalists and businessmen. But while the Americans are still representative in many ways not only of the current administration but of the American-Jewish community as well, the Israelis, though still influential in many other arenas, have very little impact on the actual decision-making process back home.

Centrist politicians such as Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who were also present at the Forum, could have easily garnered support and reached understandings with the audience, But Ya'alon, Bennett, Lieberman and Hanegbi, or at least their views, were like fish out of water, members of an opposing ideological camp.

Perhaps they would have felt right at home in a parallel forum convened by someone like Sheldon Adelson, with the likes of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump, if he were invited. The utter distrust of Palestinian motives, as well as their casting as part and parcel of a total war being waged by Iran and radical Islam, is the kind of message that would go over well in GOP campaign rallies in Iowa or New Hampshire. The lack of empathy for Palestinians after half a century of living under occupation and the complete denial of any moral burden on Israelis for maintaining it are completely acceptable in GOP speeches and around the Israeli cabinet table, but not for the constituencies represented at Saban.

Although it was not a major topic of discussion, the aftershocks of the Iran deal campaign were palpable: Netanyahu’s March speech in Congress incontrovertibly and perhaps irreversibly upset bipartisan support for Israel and cast it as a Republican cause instead. Democrats in Congress are still staunch backers of Israel and AIPAC continues to wield influence on both sides of the aisle, but everyone knows that something fundamental has changed.

And it is much worse among younger millennials, as many speakers pointed out – though Lieberman, explicitly, and the others, implicitly, didn’t seem to understand or care. When pressed on their response to the growing alienation of young Jews or the difficulties posed by BDS campaigns on campus, the government’s spokesmen fall back on budgets, campaigns and “Jewish education.” They seemed deaf to suggestions by their critics that their own policies are also at fault and worthy of reassessment, at the very least.

Ironically, it was Netanyahu who relieved some of the tension with a last-minute video address that expounded on the same themes as his ministers and representatives but in a much more digestible manner, including his repeated declarations of allegiance to a two-state solution. The night before, Lieberman had ridiculed Netanyahu’s commitment, saying “it depends whether he’s in Washington or Jerusalem”; most of the audience seemed to titter in agreement. Nonetheless, there was something reassuring in the very fact that Netanyahu had mouthed the words "two-state solution," as if this was the long-awaited signal that the world hadn’t completely lost its mind.

After all, these are the rules of the game as it has been played for decades by diplomatic and political elites throughout the Western world: the best is to genuinely strive for a solution, next in line is maintaining a diplomatic process for appearances sake, and last resort is to at least pretend. Armed with this facade, American Jews can lobby the administration to support Israel, protest against unwarranted bias in Europe and the United Nations, and, most importantly, look themselves in the mirror.

Netanyahu knows how to play the game, but the overwhelming majority of his ruling coalition doesn’t feel the need to. They view the largely center-left American-Jewish community as an extension of Israel’s own defeatist left, which they disdain and try to undermine. It is this naked truth, shorn of its mask, which created such intense discomfort at the Saban Forum.

The conference, deftly managed by Tamar Cofman Wittes, director of the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy, was entitled “Israel and the United States: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” If I had to sum up the findings, yesterday was fine, today is painful and tomorrow could be worse, if things don’t change.

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