The New Yorker editor David Remnick attends a major Zionist event in America and shows, intentionally or not, that the American and Israeli political classes are insular fools who don’t care a hoot about Arabs (so what’s new, right?):
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 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.”
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.
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.