Robert Siegel’s performance at the Saban Forum

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Robert Siegel with Avigdor Lieberman
Robert Siegel (l) with Avigdor Lieberman and joined flags. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya of Haaretz

Last Friday night, Robert Siegel, star baritone of National Public Radio,  moderated a Washington event featuring Israel’s rightwing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and in their reports on the event, David Remnick and Ali Gharib faulted Siegel for being docile. I sat down and watched the video of Siegel and Lieberman last night, and I share that criticism.

The first issue is, Why is Siegel serving this function? The Saban Forum can rightly be described as part of the Israel lobby: it works hard to preserve the special relationship between the two countries by getting Israeli and American officials together in off-the-record meetings so that they can more effectively make policy together, as Haim Saban explains at the opening of the first video here. A “tireless cheerleader for Israel,” Saban blasted the Palestinian statehood initiative at the U.N. speaking on a stage where the Israeli and American flags were blended together. At a time when our closeness to Israel has become a source of international controversy, I believe that journalists should be writing about the Israel lobby, not participating in its events. But Siegel seemed to enjoy the access. He referred to Saban as “Haim” and dutifully called on Israel supporters Saban, Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross to ask the first three questions of his honored guest. Later he interrupted the Egyptian  ambassador, Mohamed Tawfik, telling him to get to his question.

The second issue is Siegel’s overly-respectful attitude to Lieberman. He was often deferential to the rightwing politician, beginning with his first question when he asked Lieberman about the new “housing units” on the West Bank and East Jerusalem– not calling them settlements. Lieberman promptly called them “settlements.”

That set the mood. Over the next 50 minutes, Siegel was polite to Lieberman and Lieberman was rude back– ignoring his questions, lecturing him, and making offensive comments about the backward political culture of the Middle East and Islamic countries when compared to Europe. While Siegel often pressed Lieberman to answer questions, he was on the whole courtly, most notably in his smarmy closing: “Well, Foreign Minister Lieberman, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, and I appreciate all your time and your ideas.”

His ideas! What are Lieberman’s ideas? Though Siegel chuckled at the start in encouraging Lieberman to be as politically incorrect “as you can possibly be,” he never sought to expose the political incorrectness– actually, racism– in Lieberman’s ideas: He never asked Lieberman about his support for “transfer” of Palestinians out of Israel, or his support for a loyalty oath for Israelis.

Gharib is incisive on this point:

[No one asked Lieberman about] his advocacy for a shocking policy of redrawing borders to transfer some Israelis on the basis of their ethnicity, thereby stripping these Palestinians of their citizenship. Washington, in one of its rare public sit-downs with Lieberman, seemed not to care. There was no accounting for the notion, nor for the anti-democratic laws pushed by his party. No one read any of Lieberman’s old quotes back to him.

To his credit, Siegel pressed Lieberman about Palestinian statehood, but Lieberman repeatedly fended him off by saying that the key issue is that Palestinians must attain $10,000 GDP per capita. When they attain that level of prosperity, Lieberman said, everything will be fine– because they will have something to lose, and won’t want to be terrorists.

Siegel never countered by saying that Palestinians live under military occupation and have to go through checkpoints just to get to work. Or that Jewish settlers can vote, while Palestinians living alongside them cannot vote for the government that runs their lives. Or that you can understand Gazans resorting to rockets when they live under occupation in an open-air prison.

In fact, it was Haim Saban who played the liberal. He rose from the audience to challenge Lieberman, OK, let’s say that Palestinians have $10,000 GDP per capita. Then what? Meaning, they still would lack political self-determination, and what do you aim to do about that? Lieberman brushed Saban off, too.

In fairness to Robert Siegel, Lieberman was terrifying. He insulted his questioners and the crowd with boisterous familiarity, even though this is the Washington hand that feeds him; he checked his watch impatiently; he repeatedly interrupted Siegel and browbeat him. I’ve been a passive interviewer myself in such circumstances.

Still I was struck by Siegel’s deference. Even the audience seemed stunned by Lieberman’s indifference to the holy grail of Washington, the two-state solution — and Siegel could have ridden the crowd’s sentiment, to bridle at Lieberman’s intransigence, or lecture Lieberman, or observe that the Israeli political class “is a full-blown trainwreck,” as Remnick put it.

The episode leaves me wondering about Siegel’s personal commitment to Israel. If you watch the show, you’ll see that Siegel knows how to pronounce Lieberman in the Israeli way (just as he knew how to pronounce Amos Oz’s name right here). He knows that Herut was Menachem Begin’s party. Presumably he knows that “housing units” in the West Bank are illegal settlements. I’m not faulting him for his knowledge; but Siegel was a young radio journalist at Columbia University when Israel won the Six-Day War, and I’ve always wondered whether that victory that so inspired American Jews didn’t also thrill Robert Siegel. I’d love to ask him about his belief in the need for a Jewish state, how often he’s been there, whether he has family there. Maybe I’ll get my chance when a Washington thinktank has a forum on Jewish journalists and Zionism.

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