WASHINGTON – Outside the Willard Intercontinental, perhaps Washington’s best-known grand hotel, snow fell delicately and men in green-and-red tutus, Santa Claus costumes and running pants strode down Pennsylvania Avenue. The threat of a mid-Atlantic ice storm did not deter participants in the 8K Jingle All the Way run from sprinting past the television vans that were clustered around the hotel. The cameras were there not for the outdoor showdown, but the one inside.
Security personnel strode through the ornate halls decked out in Christmas splendor. Here it was all suits, no elves. And there was little holiday cheer when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the Saban Forum was aired on multiple large screens to an audience of around 200.
The crowd was dominated by Israeli VIPs. Lots of formers: Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, former chief-of-general-staff Gabi Ashkenazi, former minister Dan Meridor, former ambassadors to the US Itamar Rabinovich and Michael Oren. And plenty of currents: New opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, and Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom. Most came with spokespeople and security. And there was a full complement of Israel’s prime political reporters.
So this was a largely home crowd for Netanyahu, though not one overly stacked with major supporters. And the barely polite response to his remarks underlined the fact.
Many of the Israeli A-listers had only stayed in town to hear Netanyahu’s address; they slipped out immediately after he concluded, before the next panel began. A number had checked out of the hotel ahead of the speech, and were quickly en route to the snowy airports. Evidently, they heard nothing that wanted to make them hang around
After a weekend of often substantive and sometimes exhilarating speeches and debate surrounding the US-Israel relationship, Netanyahu’s speech fell flat.
Part of the problem was the format. At the Saban Forum, now marking its 10th anniversary, there is a certain air of calm affability. President Barack Obama sat at a coffee table and interspersed comic asides with policy during his session with host Haim Saban on Saturday. Secretary of State John Kerry was a bit more declarative, but took some time to digress and engagingly reference his beloved Boston.
Netanyahu was to have held a conversation with PBS host Charlie Rose — a back-and-forth similar to Obama’s carefully staged tete-a-tete with forum founder Saban. Instead, the prime minister chose to appear alone via video feed – thus immediately rendering himself both remote and official, flanked as he was by the national flag and wearing a serious solid blue tie.
Although he has participated at Saban in person in the past, Netanyahu had missed the memo, or more likely opted to ignore it: Here, serious statements are generally paired with the kind of staged informality that one expects among people wearing suits on a Sunday. But Netanyahu was firm, largely unsmiling, official. At times, some here felt, even aggressive.
When it was over, collegiality revived. Regulars acknowledged each other in the halls, wished each other well, and expressed hope that they would meet again next year. Even members of Netanyahu’s often-fractious coalition kept their responses tactfully superficial. Few complimented the speech, but nobody panned it. One senior Likud member offered a resigned shrug. An Israeli minister noted that the format – the video conference – had chilled the atmosphere.
Later, as the forum’s final panel concluded, emerging participants mingled with runners, recovering from their icy morning, who were taking a breather in the Willard’s opulently carpeted hallway.
Three people who have held the title “Israel’s ambassador to Washington” traded intimate conversations — not with each other — and a former prime minister sat in a deep sofa chatting with a veteran reporter and a Netanyahu confidant. Stray runners in tutus watched the dynamic, doubtless puzzled by the strange site of all these men suited up on a Sunday.