Former US president Bill Clinton and his wife, US Senator Hillary Clinton meet Israel’s President Moshe Katsav and his wife Gila.Over photographs of Sen. Hillary Clinton with her forehead pressed to the Western Wall, the headline of Israel’s highest-circulation newspaper speculated whether the note she placed between the stones of the holy site included a wish to the Almighty that she be elected president.

The picture reflected a week in which Israelis focused on the US leaders in Israel almost as much as the event that they had come to commemorate: Democrats and Republicans, past and present US leaders and policy makers all took part in the multiple ceremonial events of the tenth anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

But for most of them, the visits had another focus that brought them beyond ceremony – they also came to take part in a dialogue aimed at deepening the relationship between the US and Israel, by participating in the second annual forum of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies of Tel Aviv University.

The event attracted a high-level bipartisan American delegation of officials and opinion leaders together in Jerusalem – most prominently US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, and former president Bill Clinton and his senator wife – to meet with their Israeli counterparts and discuss the topic ‘Dealing with Twenty-first Century Challenges.’

The Saban Forum was organized with the goal of taking a step back to analyze events in the Middle East, and their role within larger trends in the Middle East. It was established – according to its press material – “in the belief that a free-flowing, candid discussion in a private setting between Israelis and Americans with different perspectives can benefit both sides and strengthen the understanding between them.”

The director of the Saban Center, Martin Indyk, explained to ISRAEL21c that the first such forum was held in Washington last year – with many of the same participants.

“Obviously, when we set the timing for the second event, we did it so the American delegation could attend the Rabin memorial events and would still be able to participate in the dialogue, and we were very conscious of Rabin’s legacy hanging over the discussions this year,” said Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, at the US Department of State.

Indyk explained that the public speeches and the tours of the country that the visiting participants took – both widely reported on in the media – were just a part of the activities. The third, quieter, critical element was the series of actual dialogues – panels in which it was understood that none of the participants were to be quoted by name so they could speak freely.

Taking part in the panel discussions were a diverse group of both Israelis and Americans that included high-ranking government officials and lawmakers, business leaders and journalists. Indyk said that though similar dialogues are held between the US and other countries, the Saban initiative is the first such initiative for an ‘institutionalized dialogue’ between leaders in the two countries so that they could “learn from one another and hold a dialogue that is not about the usual things.”

A conscious effort was made to go beyond the typical political discussions which tend to hone in on the latest developments between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab nations.

“We tried to get away from this usual obsessive focus,” said Indyk. “Instead we looked at where the two societies are at this particular moment. The Israelis spoke about Israel post-disengagement and the Americans spoke about their society post 9/11. The result of the exchange was a sense from the Americans that their society is becoming really separated and that there is a real loss of a political center – which sounds very familiar to Israelis.”

He also recounted the discussions centered around the continual tension between security and civil liberties in an age of growing terrorism.

“Here I think there is a lot that Americans could learn from the Israeli experience,” Indyk observed. “Israel has been struggling for a long time to find that balance, and the US is still struggling with it, with the continuing dialogue about Abu Graib and Guantanamo and Congress passing laws that constrain what the executive branch can do. The Israelis brought in their experience with the Shin Bet and the laws regarding torture. Overall it was a very good opportunity for the Americans to understand better how to balance the cause of liberty and cause of security.”

Another panel examined technology and society, which Indyk described as “another area where the US and Israel are going through parallel experiences.”

Both countries view the Internet revolution as providing tremendous opportunities paired with fears that they will exacerbate socio-economic gaps even further as differences widen between those who are ‘plugged in’ and those who are not.
Overall, he concluded, “when we start to move away from the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and up to a level of dealing with these kinds of issues there is a general recognition that doing so is a really worthwhile effort which benefits both countries.”

He has high hopes for the future of the forum. “Part of the purpose of doing it every year is trying to institutionalize it – to create a core of people who are invested in the relationship so that it serves not only to enrich the dialogue but inspires other projects spinning off from it.”

Rice praised the initiative, stating in her opening speech that the Saban dialogue formed “a critical contribution to peace and understanding. The United States and Israel, of course, share history and share interests but most of all we share values and because we share values, our friendship will always be strong and deep and broad.”

Looking at Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as she addressed him directly, she said, “President Bush and I admire your personal courage, your leadership and the crucial contribution to peace that you are making. Disengagement was a testament to the character and the strength of Israeli society, especially to the men and women of the Israeli Defense Forces and the police service, whose noble conduct during this painful event set a standard to which all democratic nations should aspire.”

The Israeli press and public closely followed Rice’s activities during her visit in Israel, which culminated in a diplomatic achievement at the end of her stay, as she brokered an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians regarding the Gaza border crossings.

But they were particularly captivated by the Clintons during their three-day visit. It began on an emotional note as former president Clinton moved the crowd in Rabin Square on Saturday night, shortly after his arrival in Israel, serving as the keynote speaker at a massive rally commemorating the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Rabin, to whom he became personally close as they attempted to forge peace agreements between Israel, the Palestinians, and neighboring Arab states.

Standing where Rabin had when he delivered his last speech, Clinton said he “expected to be missing Yitzhak Rabin for the rest of my life.”

With a break in his voice, Clinton admitted that “there has not been a week in the last 10 years where I have not thought of him and missed him,” adding that “I loved him very much and I was in awe of his ability to move from being a soldier to being a peacemaker, a politician to a statesman.”

Clinton ended his speech by saying “Shalom Haver,” – Hebrew for ‘Goodbye friend,’ – the phrase he used at Rabin’s funeral, which was embraced by Israelis and symbolized for them the affinity between the two world leaders.

Israelis will always have a special relationship with the former US president, said Indyk, who served as Clinton’s ambassador to Israel, and later as a senior aide on the Middle East.

“In times when the Israeli nation went through crisis, he was there and he really appreciated it. He was here in times triumph like the signing of the peace treaty with Jordan and in times of tragedy he was here and crying with them. They will always remember him most for his reaction to Rabin’s assassination, something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. They know he cares about them and relate on a human level, a natural reaction.”

The praise for Rabin was a bipartisan affair, as Rice referred to his legacy numerous times. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who led the US delegation to the official events commemorating Rabin, said “he was a true giant – a soldier tempered by war whose tireless efforts in the name of peace are a reminder that anything is possible, even in the face of daunting opposition, through commitment and vision.”

Baker, who guided foreign policy in the first Bush administration, noted that Rabin “believed that the special relationship between Israel and the United States was critical to promoting negotiations for a lasting peace between Israelis and Arabs.”

He called Rabin a “visionary” and said that his memory “should remind each of us – Israeli, Arab, and American alike – that peace should always be more than only a prayer. It should be our aspiration.”