Washington — The singular power and influence of Haim Saban, an Israeli-American, Hollywood-based media mogul, brought top Israeli and U.S. officials together last weekend to discuss the troubles now roiling relations between Washington and Jerusalem. But even three days of high-profile speeches, closed-door discussions and cocktail schmoozing could not mask the deep differences between Washington and Jerusalem.
If anything, the 10th annual Saban Forum, which convened in Washington’s tony Willard Hotel, starkly outlined the fault lines separating the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government in Israel on the two key issues separating them: Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
On Sunday morning, Secretary of State John Kerry could be seen huddling in a side hallway of the Willard, just outside the conference hall hosting the forum, with his special envoy to ongoing Middle East peace talks, Martin Indyk, and with U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
It couldn’t have been a cheerful moment.
Kerry, who cajoled the Israelis and Palestinians into reconvening their long dormant negotiations in July, had just ended his first meeting with Israel’s re-installed foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. But despite his declaration in Jerusalem just prior to the conference that important progress had recently been made in those talks, Lieberman himself described the chances of reaching a deal as “mission impossible” in his speech to the conference, also on Sunday.
Throughout the weekend, in fact, Israeli officials all but shot down Kerry’s efforts to bring them and the Palestinians closer to a deal.
Just minutes after Lieberman gave his speech, Israeli cabinet minister Silvan Shalom told reporters standing outside the hall that reaching an agreement with the Palestinians within the six months still left under the American timeframe was “detached from reality.”
Just last week Kerry and his State Department team presented the Israelis with a detailed plan prepared by retired General John Allen that aimed to address any security concerns Israel might have regarding the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank — the ultimate goal of the negotiations.
“Never before has the United States conducted such an in-depth analysis of Israel’s security requirements,” Kerry told the Saban participants on Saturday, adding that Allen’s plan will “make sure that the border on the Jordan River will be as strong as any in the world.”
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing the gathering via satellite on Sunday, seemed to minimize the effort’s importance and shifted his focus to a different concern.
“The core of the conflict has never been borders and settlements,” he told the gathering. “It is about one thing: The persistent refusal to accept the Jewish state in any border.” For some time, Netanyahu has sought to raise the issue of Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a specifically Jewish state, not just as a diplomatically recognized and accepted state in the region. This was not a precondition for Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt or Jordan. But it is now playing a greater role in Israeli rhetoric.