Middle East experts won’t convene in 2018

For the past 13 years, come December in DC this invite-only gathering of top Jewish and Middle East leaders has been the hottest ticket in town. Held a block away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s not the White House Hanukkah party with long lines and random guests, but the exclusive Saban Forum. Hosted by media mogul Haim Saban, the forum has served as an annual off-the-record convening of key Middle East movers and shakers since it was launched in 2004. Think AIPAC’s Policy Conference — if only the speakers’ lounge was invited. The Saban Forum has included conversations with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Jared Kushner respectively over the last four years.

The Forum’s featured guest speaker in 2018? There’ll be none. In fact, there will be no gathering at all, organizers revealed in a letter to past attendees. Is the Saban Forum another casualty of the Trump effect on DC’s establishment? Perhaps, but organizers say they are taking this year off to reassess and refresh the format.

Since its inception, policy-makers, think-tankers, veteran experts and diplomats have engaged in formal and informal dialogue regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the U.S.-Israel relationship U.S. at the winter confab. Organized by the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, regular attendees included members of Congress, senior Israeli politicians, U.S. administration officials, thought leaders, media executives and even a sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

But earlier this year, after hosting President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner for an open and frank discussion at last year’s Forum, Saban announced the discontinuation of the gathering. “We wanted to let you know that we have decided to take a year off to rethink and reformat the Saban Forum,” Saban and The Center’s current director Natan Sachs wrote in a letter to prior participants. “This will allow us to ensure it can live up to its mission while adapting to the new realities in the Middle East and in the United States.”

According to Martin Indyk, most recently the Executive Vice President of the Brookings Institute and now at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Saban Forum was cancelled simply because the content had gone stale. “The context needed to be renovated or reinvented. It was the same conversation with the same people, more or less,” Indyk told Jewish Insider. “It tended to devolve to the same conversation, especially because there were the same figures for all intents and purposes, on the Israeli side. On the American side, of course, it changed. We went from Obama and Kerry, to Trump and Jared Kushner. That was all different. But it really felt like the conversation wasn’t going anywhere. We were basically ships passing in the night.”

But some believe that the makeup of the Trump administration and the fact that the current Israeli government has established its own very close ties with the White House could have played a factor in the decision taken by Saban, who is considered a leading Democratic mega-donor. “I do believe the Forum would have been held this year if Hillary [Clinton] had been elected,” Dennis Ross — who served as Mideast Envoy under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — told Jewish Insider.

Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, critiqued what he perceived as imbalance of political views among attendees. “I think that the Saban Forum has suffered from the fact that it was almost entirely center-left to left,” Abrams explained to Jewish Insider. “There were very few Republicans, there were very few Likud or Yisrael Beitenu people. It’s basically a progressive club, and that’s just not smart because it does not reflect the political reality in either country.”

Indyk says the cancellation of this year’s gathering wasn’t influenced by the Trump administration. “We were able to engage with the current administration. Last year we had Jared Kushner come, which I think was the first time he appeared publicly,” he pointed out. “We had quite a few other officials there from the Trump administration who were not speaking publicly.”

“It wasn’t a problem of attracting the high level people,” said Indyk. “There was a question of whether there was really anything productive coming out of it.”

In an email to Jewish Insider, Saban insisted, “The Forum not taking place this year had nothing to do with Trump, Hillary or anything else.” Rather, he said, it’s simply time to “rethink and refresh.”

The Forum’s cancellation will leave a significant void in the conversation between American and Israeli leaders, according to several past participants.

“You can’t make the argument that there’s nothing to talk about,” Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center told Jewish Insider. “Absolutely, there’s a need for such a gathering.”

“On the cusp of what may be the first effort by the administration to lay out a ‘comprehensive’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would have thought that now would be an intriguing, fascinating time to hold this gathering,” Miller explained. “I think the issue is pregnant with all kinds of material, fascinating politics, security issues and personalities. At a time where there’s so much of consequence occuring, at a time when Israel faces so many security challenges, and at a time when Bibi faces a momentous year, why not have the Saban Forum? This could’ve been one of the more intriguing Saban Forums.”

According to Susie Gelman, Chair of the Israel Policy Forum, “Given how strained our political discourse has become, the opportunities for dialogue provided by the Saban Forum are needed now perhaps more than ever.”

Notwithstanding the current warm relationship between Netanyahu and Trump administration, former U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro believes that the format could still play a “valuable role” between the two governments. “The relationship is always more than just a few people around the president and the prime minister,” Shapiro stressed in an email to Jewish Insider. “I hope we will resume the Saban Forum, or something like it, in the years ahead.”

Indyk and Saban say they are in the process of reevaluating the Forum, with plans to relaunch in the future. “We might bring it back in ‘19,” said Saban.

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