Nikki Haley has a wonderful laugh. It’s warm, rounded and the perfect length to fill the distance between you and her. Haley’s chuckle makes you feel for a moment that you genuinely amuse her, in a good way, so much so that you forget that the laugh came instead of the question you just asked her. When she runs for president, as she no doubt will one day, expect her to deploy that laugh a lot. It’s a valuable political tool.
My question at which Haley laughed was “does the path to the White House pass through Jerusalem?” She was in town as the guest of honor at the Israel Hayom Forum for U.S.-Israel Relations, and though I didn’t get an answer, Haley’s willingness to endure the five hours of the “forum” reflected, if not the durability of U.S.-Israel relations, then certainly her relentlessness and professionalism as a politician, even though she currently styles herself as a private citizen since resigning as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations last October.
Everything about Haley throughout the grueling evening, at least when on public display, showed her meticulous planning and determination, starting with her attire. Her long – and long-sleeved – dress on a sweltering Jerusalem summer evening contrasted with the much shorter dresses all around and drew approval from ultra-Orthodox men. “Wow, she really understands tzniess,” one of them whispered to me, using the Yiddish word for modesty.
One thing she hadn’t prepared for was the timetable. Haley arrived at the beginning of the evening. No one had told her that any event featuring Benjamin Netanyahu starts at least 90 minutes late.
But the extravaganza at Robinson’s Arch, right by the Western Wall, wasn’t about Haley. She was the guest of honor but this was all about another powerful woman, our host for the evening Miriam Adelson, usually known as Miri. In May 2018, Miri took over as publisher of Israel Hayom, the Netanyahu-worshipping free daily her husband Sheldon founded in 2008 and has financed at a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars since. This was Miri’s night and even the woman who may be a future Republican candidate for president was in a supporting role.
According to Haaretz’s business paper, TheMarker, Miri is now the dominant figure in the casino empire built up by Sheldon, who at 85 and suffering from cancer has handed over most of the control to Miri, his second wife, 12 years his junior. That empire makes her the richest Israeli, with an estimated fortune of $22 billion.
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Sheldon was there as well, trundling around on his electric tricycle, but he didn’t speak at the event and seemed most of the time in a world of his own. I asked him if he was there to anoint Haley the next POTUS, but the man who has spent hundreds of millions on political campaigns in the United States and Israel remained silent and a bodyguard politely asked me to leave him alone. I asked Miri the same question, and she quizzed me about who I was working for, smiled pitifully and turned away.
The event was free for whoever registered in advance, but hardly full. A couple hundred people mingled around the main stage, sampling too-cold sushi and hot corned beef in brioche buns, while the Adelsons held court on a small raised enclosure nearby. The one group there in nearly full attendance was the world of Israeli right-wing politicians. Most of Likud’s ministers and many of its Knesset members turned up, but also many to the right of Likud including new Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who Miri called over as “the man at the center of attention,” and the Kahanist-supremacist star Itamar Ben-Gvir. No matter how racist, all were welcome.
Access to the VIP enclosure was a useful indication of who is currently in the Adelson-Netanyahu circle. MK Gideon Sa’ar, the only thing close to a rebel in Likud, remained with the general public. Recently-fired Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who spent long minutes on the phone loudly discussing with a pollster the latest surveys on her prospects as a leader of a joint right-wing ticket, wasn’t allowed to enter until someone interceded on her behalf.
Shaked’s (former) political partner and also just-fired Education Minister Naftali Bennett was conspicuous in his absence. Only recently, Bennett had been a permanent fixture at any event held by the Adelsons in Israel, leading to speculation that he was being groomed as their next champion in Israeli politics. But he seems to have lost favor since his party failed to cross the 3.25-percent electoral threshold in the April election.
Tired and angry
As dusk turned to darkness over the Temple Mount, Miri shooed everyone toward the stage, where long rows of largely empty chairs were festooned with little Israeli and American flags. She was escorted down the path by the energetic Israel Hayom editor, Boaz Bismuth, while Sheldon sped down a ramp on his tricycle, nearly knocking over a group of rubberneckers. But then they all sat down in the front row and nothing happened for an hour. And Haley disappeared. A platoon of production assistants whispered she was tired and angry at the delay and had been taken to a separate room to rest.
Finally, fed up with waiting for Netanyahu, the event began, against all protocol, with the national anthems. Haley and her husband were caught standing to attention, rather awkwardly behind everyone, as they were halfway back to their seats. Then came a short video on U.S.-Israel ties, strangely starting 240 years and ending with Donald Trump announcing he was moving the U.S. Embassy to Israel. And then there was a video of greeting from President Reuven Rivlin, which was strange both because it ended mid-sentence and because, an hour later, Rivlin turned up in the flesh.
By this point, it was becoming clear that despite the Adelson fortune's provenance in Vegas, the mecca of the convention business, and despite the family’s limitless funds and the Sands Corporation’s fleet of jets bringing over their guests, organizing an event in Jerusalem’s Old City was beyond them. The master of ceremonies, in her day job a cool news anchor, was becoming increasingly flustered at having to string matters along in Netanyahu’s absence.
A choir of ultra-Orthodox boys sang from the Old City wall, followed by a dance troupe aptly named “Pyromania” cavorting onstage with stick lights. Then Miri got up to award a special prize to Aliza Arens in recognition of Likud elder statesman (and Haaretz columnist) Moshe Arens, who died this past December. Arens had been Netanyahu’s earliest mentor and political patron; without him Netanyahu wouldn’t have been appointed, at age 32, deputy ambassador in Washington. None of the organizers thought it strange that they awarding the prize in Arens’ memory and Netanyahu wasn’t even there yet.
Then suddenly two Audi limousines swept into the enclosure and parked in a dark-blue tent, surrounded by security men, beside the stage. On the main screens came a greeting by an anonymous functionary of the World Zionist Organization. Then the master of ceremonies said something about Jerusalem being a city of three religions, and on cue, the muezzin began chanting the call to prayer from the Al-Aqsa Mosque next door, to the accompaniment of an oud player who had materialized onstage. Then finally Bibi and Sara stepped out of the tent to a rather low-key reception.
It was past 9:30 P.M. and people were already streaming out. One veteran Israel Hayom columnist said “I can’t take this anymore,” and begged me not to mention his name. Then his boss, Bismuth, was called to the stage as the man who had interviewed Trump three times and predicted he would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. “That wasn’t difficult to predict,” Bismuth said. “President Trump keeps his promises.”
What followed was a rambling “interview” onstage with a very tired-sounding Netanyahu, during which he and Bismuth couldn’t quite decide whether to speak Hebrew or English. Bismuth complimented Netanyahu on being poised to break David Ben-Gurion’s record as longest-serving prime minister, to which Netanyahu responded, “who’s counting?”
Bismuth then listed the three U.S. presidents whom Netanyahu has dealt with as prime minister – Clinton, Obama and Trump. “Let’s assume that in 2020 you want the same president to remain,” Bismuth said. Netanyahu demurred. “How many more presidents do you expect to deal with?” “Three or four,” he answered. “But it’s for the people to decide.”
Then Netanyahu repeated his now standard lie that the people elected him in the last election in April, even though Likud won only 26 percent of the vote and he failed to form a governing coalition. Bismuth ended the “interview” wishing Netanyahu that he’ll be able to cooperate with many more U.S. presidents.
Then the U.S. ambassador got up to give a rather incoherent speech, which contained some anecdotes about Walter Cronkite and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and attacked the Obama administration for its “parting betrayal” of Israel when it abstained on UN Resolution 2334 condemning the settlements instead of vetoing it. Which was his way of introducing to the stage former ambassador Haley, who would never have betrayed Israel at the United Nations.
This was finally Miri Adelson’s moment as she proceeded to “interview” Haley, reading from a prepared script in what was surprisingly stilted English for someone who has lived in the United States for over three decades. “She put the fear of God in to the godforsaken place,” Miri read, asking Haley to show her high-heeled shoes, because apparently they were useful to her at the United Nations.
Haley, who had obviously received the questions in advance, was by far the most measured and intelligible speaker. She praised Trump but was careful not to go overboard. When Miri asked her whether the conference in Bahrain on the Palestinian economy, which the Palestinians had boycotted, wasn’t “a waste of time,” she answered that she had seen Jared Kushner’s peace plan and that it was “well-thought,” as well as “detailed and doable,” but that sounded more like she was describing herself.
And then Miri took a deep breath. “Is there a chance that here! Now! In Jerusalem! You will announce you are running for president in 2024?” Haley was of course prepared. “The air in Jerusalem brings clarity,” she said, before dispelling any clarity because “2024 is a long way away.”
It was a quarter to 11 and only three rows of seats were still occupied. Even the bar had closed. But still the speakers kept on coming.
Next up was Trump’s special representative, Jason Greenblatt, who droned on for 20 minutes without anyone listening. A group of disconsolate students from the Jewish Agency’s Masa program were huddled at the back. I asked one what she thought of the event and she answered they had been told not to talk to anyone about politics. A senior government official texted me to ask if she had heard correctly that Greenblatt had just said there was no such thing as settlements in the West Bank. We both agreed that by then he could have recognized the Palestinian right of return and no one would have noticed.
It was like one of those really long bar mitzvah dinners where every uncle gets to deliver a speech and all the guests have left – but the close family can’t escape. From the nearby Western Wall Plaza came the sounds of singing as families celebrated real bar mitzvahs and were having so much more fun. Which is when I wondered whether Miri Farbstein, back in austere 1950s Haifa, even had a bat mitzvah and perhaps this was her way of finally making it up to herself.
Either way, it still wasn’t over. The last uncle onstage was Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams. It wasn’t exactly clear how he was relevant to U.S.-Israel ties was, but the MC explained how Adams had brought the Giro d’Italia bicycle race to Israel and Madonna to Eurovision, “but wasn’t responsible for her performance.” Struggling to establish some kind of connection, he riffed on Haley’s Indian heritage and how he had relatives who were Indian Jews.
And then suddenly it was all over with a dispirited rendition of Leonard Cohen’s (another Canadian) “Hallelujah,” and exhausted children swarmed the stage with flags. Netanyahu got in his car and Haley, the pro that she is, continued posing for selfies with people until close to midnight. For those of us who had made it to the end, the bar miraculously opened. A wonderful night for U.S.-Israel relations.