Hillary Clinton’s Israel Problem

Hillary wants to play nice with Israel if elected President. That might not work as well as she’d like.

In an op-ed in The Forward this week Hillary Clinton, candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, explained how the relationship with Israel would begin under her watch. Entitled “How I Would Reaffirm Unbreakable Bond with Israel — and Benjamin Netanyahu,” Clinton was clearly trying to distance herself from President Obama and proclaim her pro-Israel bonafides. Even more so, she was declaring that things would be “different,” and the toxic relationship between the leadership of the two countries would not carry over into the next administration.

Clinton begins by praising the American-Israeli alliance and explained her own “enduring emotional connection” to Israel, starting back when she and then-recently defeated former Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton visited the Jewish state in 1981. She built an “admiration for how Israelis have built a thriving democracy in a region full of adversaries and autocrats,” and “fell in love with Jerusalem” walking the streets of the Old City.

She goes on to note how she fought for Israel in the Senate, mentioning pushing for Magen David Adom to be accepted to the International Red Cross, and as Secretary of State, where she supported funding for the Iron Dome and defended Israel in international community. “I have stood with Israel my entire career,” she says, and swears to “continue this fight” as president.

It is where she announces her intentions to “do everything” she can to “enhance our strategic partnership” where things get strange. Not because what she is saying is unusual, but more because what she is claiming will be done doesn’t really represent anything new, or even symbolic of a different approach from Obama.

Clinton states that she will ensure that Israel “always has the qualitative military edge to defend itself.” In short, she will do what her predecessors have been doing for many years.

Another part of her “reaffirmation” of the bond with Israel would be to immediately dispatch “a delegation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to meet with senior Israeli commanders.” Why? U.S. and Israeli military officials meet on a regular basis. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon just met with Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, an important topic of their conversations being a new military aid package for Israel worth as much as $50 billion over the next decade. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Israel only two weeks ago.

Her “big” promise, though, is that she will “invite the Israeli prime minister to the White House in my first month in office.” Obama’s first phone calls as president were to leaders directly associated with the peace process, including then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Netanyahu visited the White House soon after his success in the 2009 election. What’s the rush? Is the importance of a bilateral relationship based on how soon after the President is inaugurated an invitation is sent out?

Something Clinton leaves out is exactly how she would repair ties with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Reaffirming close ties with Israel and getting along with Netanyahu are far from the same thing. What would change to clear the poisonous air between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office? How would Clinton deal with a man who has earned the intense dislike of not one, but three U.S. Presidents (H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Obama)? Secretary of State James Baker banned Netanyahu, then the Deputy Foreign Minister, from visiting the State Department after he insulted U.S. policy in the Middle East. That was in the early 1990s, and things have hardly gotten better.

Netanyahu and Bill Clinton meet in 1996 in Israel (Reuters)

Netanyahu has managed to alienate every American leader he has had to deal with, and just inviting him to the White House in the first month (should he still be in office with his unstable coalition) is most likely not going to help matters. A certain President Bill Clinton invited Netanyahu to the White House in 1996 to give the “impression of patching over differences and searching for common ground” after a rough time between them. What instead happened what Netanyahu lecturing the President on Israel and its neighbors, leading to Clinton’s famous post-meeting outburst of “who the f*** does he think he is? Who’s the f****** superpower here?” In 1996, President Clinton worked to support Shimon Peres and keep Netanyahu out of the Prime Minister’s Office. In 1999, he worked to support Ehud Barak in unseating Netanyahu, even sending his own campaign advisors to aid in the effort.

Hillary is not her husband, of course, and her presidency is not going to be President Bill 3.0. However, that doesn’t mean she does not have her own unpleasant history with Netanyahu. After the Israelis announced a massive settlement expansion scheme during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden in 2010, it was Hillary who lectured the Prime Minister, for nearly an hour at that. She railed over the “humiliation” caused by the announcement. Clinton herself chalks up a lot of her less positive interactions during her time as Secretary of State has due to having to be the “bad cop,” but it isn’t that simple. Surely she shared at least some of her husband’s frustrations with Netanyahu all those years ago.

“Her relationship with him is very bad, just not as toxic as Obama’s,” said Alon Pinkas to the Washington Post. Pinkas, who was Consul-General in New York while Clinton was a Senator, believes that, although a Hillary-Netanyahu relationship has the “potential to succeed,” he doesn’t believe it will. Why? Because Netanyahu “can’t help himself.”

This is the main point. Clinton can do her best to bring fresh life to the relationship between the two governments. She can go out of her way to avoid the sort of acrimony that exists between Obama and Netanyahu (and their subordinates). None of it may matter because, as Pinkas said, he can’t help himself. Netanyahu is going to Netanyahu.

A recent case study for this is the ongoing “Baratz Affair.” On Wednesday it was reported that Ran Baratz had been tapped to be Netanyahu’s new media chief. This sort of announcement would usually be casual and not particularly important, but the Prime Minister’s choice has thus far proven to be an embarrassment. In what must be a case of poor vetting, Israeli journalists soon uncovered that Baratz had publicly aired what were controversial views, at best, and at worst downright offensive.

In one recent Facebook post, Baratz said that if Israeli President Reuven Rivlin were to fall into the hands of ISIS, “they’ll return him the next day with a request for negotiating their return to Iraq, if only we take him back.” Even more important, though, given that Netanyahu will be visiting Washington, DC next week and meeting with President Obama, is that Baratz labeled the President as representing modern anti-Semitism and his Secretary of State as having the mental capacity of a twelve year old. Baratz has even criticized Netanyahu himself.

It would be one thing if Baratz was known as a smooth political operator, or was a skilled hand with the media, but he’s neither. His education is in philosophy, and he has “no experience in the fields of journalism, public relations or public diplomacy,” as Israeli journalist Barak Ravid of Ha’aretz noted. His apparent claim to fame is that he founded a right-wing news site.

Just when it seemed like Netanyahu was going to smooth things over by putting Baratz’s job offer aside, he said he would not address the matter until his return from the United States late next week.

That’s the Netanyahu who Hillary Clinton would have to deal with. The same Netanyahu who said that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls,” who agreed that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch, who came to speak in front of Congress in violation of all protocols. The same Netanyahu who has people who are ardently opposed to a two-state solution as his top diplomats, or whose cabinet ministers say a two-state solution does not enjoy the backing of the governing coalition.

If Clinton has to work with Netanyahu, she is going to run into the same person who has turned three administrations against him. However, if the insults die down and the smiles seem a little less forced, then perhaps that’s enough for Hillary to call a victory.

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