Lessons from the Saban Forum

The highlight of the Saban Forum was provided by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has no harness on his tongue and always says what he thinks.

Hillary Clinton, Cheryl Saban, Ehud Olmert 370  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hillary Clinton, Cheryl Saban, Ehud Olmert 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The highlight of the ninth-annual Saban Forum that took place last weekend in Washington was provided by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This should not surprise anyone. Emanuel has no harness on his tongue and always says what he thinks and feels in the most blatant fashion.
It happened during a joint interview conducted by The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier with Tzipi Livni and Emanuel on Saturday afternoon. The mayor, one of President Barack Obama’s closest confidants, lashed out at Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, shocking members of the audience.
Emanuel said Netanyahu had embarrassed the Obama administration by taking punitive actions against the Palestinian Authority after the administration had voted against it at the UN, supported Israel during the recent Gaza fighting and funded the Iron Dome missile defense system.
He went on to say that it was untenable that an Israeli prime minister conduct himself as Netanyahu had once done when he publicly reprimanded Obama at the White House in front of journalists and cameras. Emanuel said Netanyahu had been a guest of the president, and his behavior had been unacceptable and unforgettable. And, he added, the president expected this derisive attitude by Israel’s prime minister to stop.
The power of Emanuel’s words was multiplied because until that moment, it had appeared that an unexpected honeymoon had begun between Obama and Netanyahu. Following Obama’s reelection victory in November, everyone expected Bibi to be the victim of presidential revenge on a daily basis. Netanyahu went into hiding.
His gamble on Mitt Romney had been an utter failure.
But lo and behold, instead of vengeance, Obama was generous to Netanyahu, cooperated on security matters, stood behind Israel when it launched Operation Pillar of Defense, and did not vote together with most of the world at the UN General Assembly in support of upgrading the status of the Palestinians to a nonmember state.
But a day after the vote came the Israeli declaration to build 3,000 housing units over the Green Line. It was the Americans’ turn to be surprised.
From their point of view, it was a ringing slap in the face, for all to see.
And exactly then, Rahm Emanuel appeared at the Saban Forum. Ultimately, then, his outburst against Netanyahu was to be expected. From private conversations that Emanuel had with several people at the Forum, it was apparent that he didn’t just blurt out the comments. Emanuel doesn’t invent things to say by himself. He is like a child who tells his kindergarten about secrets he heard from his parents at home.
He also added, from the dais, that Netanyahu bet on the wrong man (Romney), and his gamble failed.
The key question remains: Will the disappointment and rage that the Americans now feel against those whom they see as Israeli traitors be expressed in actions as well? It’s not certain.
Emanuel was the emotional lobe in Obama’s brain, but he has left his position as White House chief of staff. The president himself has no feelings. He is a cold fish, calm and collected. He does nothing viscerally, from his stomach.
Everything is done from the head, slowly, without agitation.
Perhaps this will end with Emanuel’s outburst, or another few symbolic slaps, which could get worse over time.
Obama has nothing to lose any more.
He doesn’t have to be reelected again.
Netanyahu, for his part, has an opportunity to make amends. The question is, does he want to? Israel is heading for elections in a month and a half. Once, ahead of elections, candidates would rush to repair relations with the White House, and portray themselves as the ultimate allies of the American president, boasting about their close ties.
But Israel has changed. The public has moved to the Right. After four years of Bibi and Barack, when the American president loses to the Israeli prime minister on almost all fronts (and often he is to blame), Israelis don’t really take Washington seriously.
On the contrary. Bibi trained Obama in his first term, and now it appears he is trying to train him in his second.
Thus Netanyahu, rather than straightening things up with Washington, finds favor with the settlers and the right wing. He self-confidence is skyhigh.
He apparently knows something that Obama doesn’t.
By the way, Emanuel’s comments weren’t meant to be made public. The Saban Forum, the most prestigious and profound dialogue between Israelis and Americans, takes place under very clear rules, under which those present can use the information they learn but not attribute it to any specific speaker.
The problem is that the media in recent years have progressed into a new age in which they are uncontrollable.
Not everyone understands this.
Martin Indyk, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, tried to shut the stable door, but the horses bolted anyway.
It started on the first night of the Forum, when many of the participants began posting on Twitter during an interview by NPR host Robert Siegel with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. The next day, Indyk tried to impose a publication ban, including on Twitter.
Then came Emanuel’s outburst, in a closed-door session. There were no tweets. But on the same night, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius interviewed former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Ignatius opened the conversation with a question about Emanuel’s comments. From Olmert’s point of view, it was a set-up. They just forgot one thing: Because this interview was open to the media and the cameras (which Olmert likes), Emanuel was outed in a live broadcast that no one could control.
Olmert danced a verbal ditty, as only he knows how to do. His remarks on Netanyahu slapping Obama in the face made headlines in Israel and around the world, and bounced back like a boomerang two days later, when it became clear that American and Europe were engaged in a campaign against Israel, in the wake of its new settlement construction plan.
Olmert, Netanyahu’s associates charged, was inciting against the prime minister. It was a childish claim, of course, but it didn’t change the fact that Olmert was violating the principle that the Israeli opposition doesn’t criticize the current government abroad, only in Israel. When you speak at an international forum, you are meant to defend Israel.
But Olmert, a seasoned advocate, has an answer that’s not too bad. The opposition should, in fact, defend the government overseas, he says, but he is not the opposition. He is no longer a politician, he says. He has decided, as everyone knows, to stay outside politics, and is now a private citizen.
And when you ask a private citizen for his opinion, he has every right to say what it is.
The Saban Forum this year brought together an interesting range of participants from Israel and the US. The Clintons drew the most attention, as usual. But there were many other names of note, all there because of the connections and influence of Haim Saban, the American-Israeli billionaire.
Saban, the host, is an active and dominant personality who asks good questions, is not shy about expressing his opinions, and has a sharp sense of humor.