One of the Most Elite Think Tanks Held Secret Panel to Counter Growing Movement Criticizing Israel

News & Politics
Last June, Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson held a secret summit in Las Vegas to come up with ways of fighting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign on college campuses. They raised a reported $50 million to do so.

Now the secret process seems to have moved on to far more influential turf, to Washington, D.C., and a leading liberal thinktank. Last week the Brookings Institution held a secret panel on BDS, sponsored by Haim Saban. By all appearances, the intent of the panel was to counter the BDS campaign.

The panel took place during the weekend-long annual Saban Forum, which brings Israeli leaders and US leaders together to talk about “the future for Israelis and Palestinians”—without any Palestinians in attendance. The BDS panel was among many meetings December 4-6 not mentioned on the Saban Forum’s public agenda.

On Saturday night, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg said at a public panel: “This morning at the BDS panel....” But he was promptly hushed.

“Which was off the record,” a woman’s voice says. My guess it was Tamara Cofman Wittes, the leader of the conference.

Goldberg jokingly called the BDS panel the “Dimona” of panels, a reference to Israel’s secret nuclear program, and reported on its dire mood:

“If the BDS panel took place, there would have been a feeling that the Israeli participant in the panel was the object of a lot of yearning and anxiety from some Americans who felt as if Israel was not paying sufficient attention to what’s going on on campuses and beyond.”

Goldberg wasn’t the only journalist at the panel. Chemi Shalev of Haaretz was there and referred elliptically to it in print when he described the mood of the Saban forum as being one of “anxiety and anguish” on the part of Americans.

I asked Shalev why he had agreed to treat a newsworthy panel as off the record, and I said I found it unseemly that Brookings was performing an “AIPAC-like function” in fighting the BDS movement, and doing so in secret. He responded:

“The Saban inviters lay down the ground rules for the entire forum and one can either choose to accept and attend or reject and not attend. I chose the former… I don’t agree with characterization of what was going on at Saban, re ‘AIPAC like function’; in fact, I would say the opposite: criticism of Israeli government and deep frustration with its policies overwhelmingly outstripped praise or support, as I myself have written.”

When I asked Shalev whether any supporter of BDS was on the panel, he declined to answer, but said my guess on that score was probably right. That means no one was advocating for BDS.

I wrote to Wittes, director of the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy, and to a Brookings spokesperson to ask who was on the panel and what its title was, and if any advocates for BDS were on the panel. Neither responded to my questions.

Brookings would surely defend the secret panel by saying it’s part of a largely off-the-record conference among Israeli and American leaders. Shalev described the gathering in his article as a meeting of “[Haim] Saban’s American contingent of Brookings scholars, former Democratic administration officials and members of Congress” and an “Israeli delegation of mainstream Israeli politicians, journalists and businessmen.”

Americans should be asking why such a conference is taking place behind closed doors at a leading liberal thinktank– and why it’s tackling BDS, which Israeli leaders have termed an “existential” threat to Israel.

The gathering is a reflection of the power of the Israel lobby in Washington. Saban is an ardent Zionist. Both Wittes and Goldberg referred affectionately to Israeli politicians Yitzhak Herzog and Avigdor Lieberman by their nicknames, “Boogie” and “Yvet.”

What were they talking about at the BDS panel? In the Saban Forum transcript of Goldberg’s public comments on Saturday night (the audio is a bit more inclusive), Goldberg brought up the BDS panel as evidence of the “pervasive unease on the part of many Americans” about Israel’s conduct: “trying to warn their Israeli friends that a train is coming barreling down the tracks” and they’re just standing there.

Many of those Americans are Jewish Zionists. Shalev reported that the American group at the conference were reassured by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement to the conference that he still favored the “two-state solution.” That might be hypocritical, Shalev observed, but it’s how the game works:

Armed with this facade, American Jews can lobby the administration to support Israel, protest against unwarranted bias in Europe and the United Nations, and, most importantly, look themselves in the mirror.

Brookings might defend a secret panel on BDS by pointing out that countless US politicians are opposing BDS. Many Republicans have come out against  BDS. And in her speech to the Saban conference the day after the BDS panel, Hillary Clinton asserted — laughably– that BDS is hurting the American ability to counter terrorism in the Middle East, because it is hurting our closest ally in the fight against extremism. She was surely pandering to Haim Saban. Clinton wrote a letter to Saban last summer that she promptly published, promising to work with Republican politicians to oppose BDS.

I find the whole matter unseemly. BDS is one of the chief threats to Israel, Netanyahu has said. So a leading liberal American thinktank is aligning itself with Israel on that battle? And if it is, why can’t it do so openly? One can fairly ask if Saban’s largesse is dictating the Brookings position, and that of the Democratic Party too.

BDS is clearly coming on strong despite all these efforts. At that event on December 5, Goldberg went on about the BDS panel that dare not speak its name, and related an anecdote from his daughter’s college campus.

Goldberg: Our oldest daughter is a freshman at a liberal arts college in New England, a pretty well-known school. And she reports to us that J Street at that street
represents the Zionist right–”

[Haim Saban seems to break in on Goldberg from the audience.]

“I wish it were funny, Haim. I wish it were funny. I mean, it’s funny, but it’s not funny. It could be both funny and not funny at the same time. Have you ever heard of a tragic comedy? You live in Hollywood. She reports that the largest Jewish organization — 25 percent of this campus is Jewish — the largest Jewish organization is a group called Jewish Voice for Peace, which is an Orwellian name for a group that opposes Israeli’s existence.

MR. HERZOG: We saw a huge write up it in Israel. It’s a huge BDS group.

Goldberg then said that sentiment toward Israel in the American Jewish comunity was “radically shifting,” and asked Lieberman if he cared. Lieberman said, “To speak frankly, I don’t care.” He called for better hasbara and Zionist education.

Later a woman in the audience, evidently Jewish, implored Lieberman to care.

you are also missing something if you think that any amount of education is going to change the fact that the millennials today do not relate to the narrative that you’re expressing. And so my question for you is simple. Do you care if we lose the young Jews in the diaspora?

Jewish Voice for Peace is surely the fastest-growing Jewish group in the country and the largest Jewish peace and justice organization in the US. It has 200,000 supporters. It has no place at Brookings– and it wasn’t invited to the Haaretz New Israel Fund conference last weekend either.

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