Who is the Boss and Who is the Servant in this Photo?

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(Richard Edmondson) It’s kind of one of those pictures that are “worth a thousand words,” don’t you think? What you’re looking at is Obama onstage with media mogul and Israeli dual national Haim Saban, who has stated previously, “I’m a one issue guy, and my issue is Israel.” The photo was taken last weekend at the Saban Forum, held in Washington. During the event Saban and Obama appeared together for what was billed as a “conversation” on the Middle East, but basically it was a one-on-one press conference—with Saban doing the grilling and Obama doing the answering. Do the facial expressions in the photo, the body language, suggest anything to you—like for instance which of the two figures is dominant and which is submissive?

Saban, of course, has lots of money. In 2002 he provided a $13 million grant which established the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and which is part of the larger Brookings Institution think tank. Today he is a major funder of political candidates, particularly of the Democratic Party. You can go here and watch a 48-minute video of his “conversation” with Obama, which includes a few questions from the audience towards the end (all of the people selected to ask questions in that closing segment, coincidentally, happen to be Israelis). At one point, Saban jokingly remarks upon how “obedient” Obama is. A little later in the video, Obama states the following:

“The one thing I will say to the people of Israel is that you can be assured, whoever is in the office I currently occupy, Democrat or Republican, that your security will be uppermost on our minds. That will not change.”

Does it not strike you as a curious comment? Why would the security of a foreign nation be “uppermost” in the minds of the leaders of a supposedly sovereign country? But then maybe America is no longer a sovereign nation.

Obama indeed proves his “obedience” by never once bringing up Israel’s nuclear weapons. Much of the conversation is dominated by talk about Iran’s domestic nuclear energy program. The president at one point repeats the standard, stock-in-trade “options-on-the-table” remark—which in essence is nothing more than a threat to attack Iran—yet nowhere, in the entire 48-minute video, does the subject of Israel’s nuclear weapons come up.

A report on the Saban Forum was posted recently at the Mondoweiss blog. While the article mentions the “conversation” between Obama and Saban, as well as a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu, who also addressed the audience, much of the piece is devoted to the remarks of John Kerry, who delivered the keynote address for the event. Allison Deger, the author of the report, notes that Kerry expressed the view that Palestinians in the West Bank are deserving of “state institutions” (as opposed to an actual state) of their own, a comment which seems to have prompted Deger to draw the conclusion that “Palestinian statehood is not on the table in the current round of peace talks.” It is a not unreasonable conclusion to draw.

Kerry also referred to Palestinians as a “demographic time bomb” threatening to jeopardize Israel’s “future as a democratic, Jewish state”—apparently the secretary of state’s first public expression of concern over the so-called “demographic threat.” But perhaps most interesting is what Deger reports on comments by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who also attended the event:

Even though Lieberman was amongst a crowd of Washington and Israeli officials familiar with his anti-Arab diatribes, audible gasps could be heard throughout the room when he called to expel Palestinian citizens of Israel. A diplomat from the Russian embassy seated next to me even choked. Another moment of discontent between the plated-dinner audience and Lieberman passed when the foreign minister made a forlorn pun at Sen. Joe Lieberman. Otherwise the foreign minister was amongst allies.

That Lieberman would call for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine at an event like this, at which high-ranking US officials, including the president, are present, is quite significant. If anyone publicly criticized him for making such a statement, it is not reported by Mondoweiss. This too is perhaps significant. Much has been made of the recent bone of contention between Obama and Netanyahu over the negotiations with Iran, with some suggesting that the US president is beginning to assert himself and to defy the Israeli lobby on some key, important issues. Is this simply wishful thinking on the part of some commentators? I don’t pretend to know the answer to that, but if there was any note of defiance struck at last weekend’s Saban Forum, all I can say is it is extremely difficult to detect.

Also worth considering is that Lieberman could be on track to succeed Netanyahu as the next prime minister of Israel