Annual Washington powwow is all about Israeli elections
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Reporter's notebook

Annual Washington powwow is all about Israeli elections

Peace talks, Iran take a backseat at this year’s Saban Forum — as does Israel’s relationship with the Obama administration

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the Saban Forum in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the Saban Forum in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON — Israeli campaign season was in full swing at the Brookings Institution’s 2014 Saban Forum over the weekend, with politicians focused on rumors that a last-minute deal could reconfigure the coalition and stave off elections. While this annual meeting usually serves as a three-day discussion on regional politics and US-Israel relations, the mood during this year’s DC confab has so far been distinctively different, and considering the mid- to long-term future of the Middle East seemed nearly inconceivable during the marathon panels and keynotes on Saturday.

In a departure from recent years, there was little prognostication regarding the twice-prolonged comprehensive nuclear talks with Iran. And if last year’s forum found attendees almost exactly in the middle of the nine-month framework for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, this year, the best speculations peaked at considering the negotiating terms under which any sort of talks could even occur.

Renewed bilateral talks, with or without Arab states as guarantors; multilateral talks based upon variations of the Arab Peace plan; and Israeli unilateral action in the West Bank — all options were floated with varying levels of enthusiasm.

Mostly, however, speakers acknowledged that everything was up in the air – and would remain so – until after the elections in March. The Americans seemed eager to take a wait-and-see approach, not resuming stalled processes until a new coalition stabilizes. At the same time, the Israeli politicians seemed focused on campaigning and speculating as to who else might join the fray.

Former and would-be MKs held court in the Willard’s cushy sofas, talking politics under heavy Christmas decorations. With the prospects for peace on hold for the duration, it was electoral drama that played out within the hotel’s stately walls.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua head Tzipi Livni launched a wave of speculation when, en route to Washington, they posted a joint picture on social media. Herzog used his keynote address at the forum to further fuel expectations that the two were headed toward a merger, telling attendees that he had warned his wife he would be “investing in some couplehood with Tzipi over the weekend.” By Saturday afternoon, Livni had confirmed that the two did intend to merge their parties’ tickets in any upcoming election – but she was largely absent from the forum’s proceedings.

Labor head and opposition leader Isaac Herzog speaks at the Saban Forum in Washington on Friday, December 5, 2014. (Photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Labor head and opposition leader Isaac Herzog speaks at the Saban Forum in Washington on Friday, December 5, 2014. (Photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

After declaring on Friday night that he would be the next prime minister, Herzog said that he would not rule any parties out of his potential coalition, from Yisrael Beytenu to Meretz, leaving the door open for a broad coalition. Would-be prime minister Herzog stuck around on Saturday talking elections and fielding phone calls, and then disappeared before right-wing Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett took the stage after nightfall.

If the first twenty-four hours of the forum belonged to the Livni-Herzog combo, it was Bennett whose electoral aspirations took center stage Saturday night. During an occasionally adversarial interview with former US peace negotiator Martin Indyk, Bennett engaged in an elaborate game of hinting and parrying regarding his own electoral aims.

Naftali Bennett addresses the Saban Forum, December 6, 2014 (YouTube screenshot)
Naftali Bennett addresses the Saban Forum, December 6, 2014 (YouTube screenshot)

With senior members of the Israeli press corps publicly pressing him as to whether he saw himself as running for prime minister in the coming campaign, Bennett ducked the question, saying that he wanted to do what was good for Israel, but that he was not “obsessed” with the premiership.

Bennett denied knowledge of any last-minute plan to shuffle the coalition in order to avert elections, but added that he would be willing to coalesce with members of the ultra-Orthodox parties. At the same time, he distanced himself from recently fired finance minister Yair Lapid, backtracking on their famous claim that they were “brothers” to acknowledge that now they were more like “stepbrothers,” and allowing that the “experiment” with Lapid “did not succeed.” Lapid said last week that their alliance fell apart because Bennett’s party became more hawkish and Orthodox.

Meanwhile, retired general and intelligence guru Amos Yadlin, an experienced security expert whose name has been suggested to bolster left-center party lists, also ducked questions throughout the weekend about his own possible involvement in elections.

If the mood at Saban was any indication, then all signs point to a stalemate on peace talks for an additional five months at least, and a vague wait-and-see approach tinged with cynicism regarding Iran talks — despite US Vice President Joe Biden’s earnest assurances at the forum that Iran will not get the bomb under the Obama Administration’s watch. “Period.”

By the time the election hype is over in March, the US is likely to be loping toward its own presidential primaries. With only 20 months left for the Obama administration following the Israeli elections, it might be wise to get attuned to a period in which the face of US-Israel policy is a dangling maybe.

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