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, focused 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 that 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.”
When the videos were over (and as the evening moved on), there was much chatter about what Clinton would do after she steps down from the Cabinet next month—get a haircut; take a few weeks sleeping off jet lag at Canyon Ranch; read the polls and the political landscape; do good works; do good works for the good people of, say, Iowa—and so on. Everyone had a theory of which they were a hundred percent certain. There wasn’t much doubt about the ultimate direction. 2007-8 was but a memory and 2016 was within sight. She’s running.
“I am somewhat overwhelmed, but I’m obviously thinking I should sit down,” Clinton said as the videos concluded. “I prepared some remarks for tonight, but then I thought maybe we could just watch that video a few more times. And then the next time, I could count the hairstyles, which is one of my favorite pastimes.” An old joke with Hillary, but the crowd, tickled to be there, rosy with wine, roared.
All kinds of circumstances could intervene between now and 2016 to derail her—politics, health, family matters, a renewed Clinton fatigue—but Hillary’s numbers are enormous, her ambition equal to her capacities, and she was in high political gear. She proceeded to give a serious, sturdy speech of a certain kind; if not quite AIPAC-ready, it was a speech extremely careful not to ruffle anyone’s delicate feelings or becloud her last days as Secretary of State. She asked of Israel only that it show more “generosity” to the Palestinians. She was quick to point out that, both in the recent Gaza crisis and then in the U.N. vote on Palestine’s non-member observer status, “we had Israel’s back.” She pointed out that the U.S. had “underwritten” Iron Dome, the missile-defense program that protected Israeli territory from rockets fired from Gaza.