Would Hillary Be Good for the Holy Land?

The 2016 Democratic prospect isn't Bill 2.0, but if anyone could work miracles on the fraught U.S.-Israeli relationship, it might be her.

Photo by ABIR SULTAN-Pool/Getty Images
Photo by ABIR SULTAN-Pool/Getty Images

Would Hillary Clinton be good for the Jews? The recent "chickenshit" episode between Israel and the United States started me thinking about the WWHD issue — or more specifically: What Would Hillary Do with the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and Netanyahu in particular, if she were to become president in 2016?

It’s clearly more than a thought experiment. The Republican midterm trouncing notwithstanding, there’s a reasonable chance that if Hillary runs, she’d win. And despite the fondest hopes of his detractors, Benjamin Netanyahu — now the second-longest-serving Israeli prime minister in Israel’s history (David Ben-Gurion still holds the record) — might still be around too. He’s the best pol in Israel and, while not popular, clearly rules by default in a largely leaderless Israel.

The U.S.-Israeli relationship, like most things in life and diplomacy, isn’t just about personalities. (See below.) But make no mistake, individuals count in politics big time both for good and for ill. So what would a Hillary-Bibi relationship look like in circumstances somewhat similar to the ones we have now? And would the former secretary of state be able to use her formidable diplomatic and personal skills to make it more productive than the current soap opera/sitcom starring the current president and prime minister?

First, let’s agree that the special relationship with Israel is hardly on the verge of collapse. Recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry in which he all but divorces himself and the administration from the comments and sentiment contained in Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent article, "The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here," is evidence enough. Nobody in Jerusalem or Washington is looking for a big fight right now. Unlike Lehman Brothers, this relationship really is too big and important to fail. Still, there’s no doubt that the changing regional environment has created new tensions and uncertainties between Washington and Jerusalem that aren’t going away soon.

Clearly the traditional Israel-centric view of the region is eroding. There are other concerns afoot that the United States is setting its sights in the region, ones that could further damage U.S.-Israeli ties. Iran has now emerged in a leaderless Arab world as a party to be both feared and courted. Indeed, the mullahs now sit at the nexus of just about everything of essential concern to America in this turbulent region, from nuclear weapons to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to Gaza. And the U.S. desire to reach an agreement on the nuclear issue and to explore the possibility of a broader rapprochement has created the impression that Washington now has too large a Teheran-centric view of the Middle East. For suspicious Israelis and Saudis, this is not just some paranoid delusion. Combined with the perception that the Obama administration was too eager to abandon former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while flirting with the Muslim Brotherhood presidency in Egypt, as well as a general feeling that Washington is withdrawing from the region and that even where it is engaged (in Syria and Iraq) it is weak and vacillating, there is more than a little concern that this U.S. president views Israel in a strategically different light than his immediate predecessors.

Factor in fundamentally different views between Obama and Bibi on the peace process, then add a touch of tension over the recent war in Gaza, and sprinkle in the soap opera tropes that now pass for the relationship between the two leaders, and you have a real witches’ brew of misperceptions, bad feelings, annoyance, and frustration that has created the image of an Israel on planet Mars and an America on Venus.

But wait a minute, you say. Just get rid of Netanyahu and all will be well. This is an Israeli problem, not an American one. Well, I’ve got a news flash for you: Bibi isn’t just some kind of temporary speed bump that can be negotiated en route to the emergence of some heroic Israeli FDR — a strong, popular, pragmatic pol just dying to make Barack Obama and John Kerry happy by agreeing to their conception of a two-state solution or a deal with Iran. And there’s no sense that any opposition leader who would have a realistic chance of being prime minister would be any easier to deal with or could deliver Israeli-Palestinian peace. Israel faces a huge leadership deficit, and Netanyahu fills it better than anyone else by both reflecting and driving the fears and insecurities of an increasingly centrist and right-leaning Israel that fears, scorns, and would love to separate itself from a turbulent neighborhood and neighbors it doesn’t trust.

Given the lack of competition, unless he stumbles badly, Netanyahu may well outlast Obama. And that brings us to the matter of Hillary Clinton. Those of you looking for a new sheriff in town — one who is willing and able to teach those Israelis a lesson, cut them down to size, and make it clear to them as Bill Clinton, who exploded in frustration following his first meeting with Netanyahu in 1996, did when he said, "Who’s the fucking superpower here?" — best lay down and lie quietly until the feeling passes.

That’s not Hillary Clinton. Indeed, she conceded in her book Hard Choices that she was never comfortable playing the bad cop with Netanyahu to Joe Biden’s more even-tempered good cop. And yet, she has some natural advantages that would help mitigate some of the gratuitous tensions that have made an already tough relationship tougher and perhaps lay the groundwork for more productive cooperation.

Should she become president, on one level, better ties with Israel are virtually guaranteed. I remember well the transition from Bush 41 to Bill Clinton in 1993. A willful effort was made to demonstrate that the page had turned and that the roller coaster ride under Bush and Secretary of State James Baker (quite productive really) was over. Granted it was easier then because Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister. But let’s not forget that the Clintons dealt with Bibi too as prime minister. It was never easy. But clearly it was a lot more productive than what we see now. A couple of interim Israeli-Palestinian agreements and a successful leader summit helped keep things quiet. It was conflict management. But, hey, that’s kind of what’s required now.

Times are tougher and more complex now. But Bill Clinton really cared about Israel and the peace issue in a way Obama does not, and Clinton really focused on it too, sometimes to a fault. Under Obama, John Kerry cares big time. But he’s not the president. And that gets to the advantages another Clinton might have over the current president.

To put it simply, as a more conventional politician, Hillary is good on Israel and relates to the country in a way this president doesn’t. She visited the country for the first time in 1981 and has been as frequent visitor ever since; she has long-standing ties to a wide range of Israeli personalities and has incorporated all of the tropes from Leon Uris’s novel Exodus, including making the desert bloom, etc., into her vocabulary. Unlike Obama, who was not quite 6 years old at the time of the 1967 war (the seminal event that mobilized both the non-Jewish and Jewish communities in support of Israel), Hillary is from a different generation and functioned in a political world in which being good on Israel was both mandatory and smart.

Let’s be clear. When it comes to Israel, there is no Bill Clinton 2.0. The former president is probably unique among presidents for the depth of his feeling for Israel and his willingness to put aside his own frustrations with certain aspects of Israel’s behavior, such as settlements. But this accommodation applies to Hillary too. Both Bill and Hillary are so enamored with the idea of Israel and its unique history that they are prone to make certain allowances for the reality of Israel’s behavior, such as the continuing construction of settlements.

Much of this is political. As veteran pols they are pragmatists. Hillary opined in Hard Choices that she was uneasy with the president’s call for a comprehensive settlement freeze because it would escalate a fight with Netanyahu that the United States probably couldn’t win. And what was the purpose of an unproductive fight with a close but often frustrating ally? Better champion the 10-month limited freeze that Netanyahu agreed to, which is precisely what she did. Should she win the White House, this pragmatic temperament will likely characterize the way Hillary deals with Israel — she thinks strategically and politically.

Then there’s the reality that unlike Barack Obama, Hillary has formed close relationships with Israelis. These aren’t instrumental ties of convenience either. Like her husband who was shattered by Rabin’s murder, she grieved personally too. And her friendship with Rabin’s wife Leah was among the strongest. I accompanied her to Mrs. Rabin funeral in 2000 and observed how deeply she was affected by Leah’s passing, which along with Rabin’s murder reflected a consequential moment in the Clinton presidency. Rabin, Yasser Arafat (the most frequent visitor to the Oval Office in 2000), and the Oslo process gave a young president with little experience in foreign policy a brief brush with history and the larger-than-life personalities that can drive it. Hillary had a front-row seat. And I believe the tragedy and unfulfilled promise of it all touched her deeply. She has empathy for the Palestinians too, a fact that got her into trouble in 1998 when in a message to the Seeds of Peace organization she endorsed Palestinian statehood before it was fashionable in U.S. policy. But her real affinity lies with the Israelis. Indeed, like Bill Clinton, the Israelis frustrate her. But she has bought off on the idea that unless you can get Israeli buy-in, there just won’t be a deal. And that means being tough at times but very reassuring most of the time. Vinegar is useful, but honey more so.

So WWHD with Israel and Netanyahu? If you’re looking for heroics and drama in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, don’t vote for Hillary. She’ll do the necessaries on protesting Israeli settlements and occupation practices. But don’t look for hot anger (Jimmy Carter) or cool pressure (James Baker). Hillary will be tougher on Iran and try to reverse the image of a weak and vacillating America. She perhaps would be more ready to use presidential cred to deal with the peace issue, assuming there’s a chance for progress and Israel isn’t actively engaged in undermining the very process she’s trying to promote. This isn’t a president who’s looking to be humiliated.

In short, Hillary would indeed do a better job of managing relations with the Israelis. Whether she’d be able to turn chickenshit into chicken salad — producing Israeli-Palestinian peace, managing the mullahs — is another matter. But a great deal of the gratuitous and unproductive drama and roller coaster ride that has been the U.S.-Israeli relationship would go away. Adults would again be in charge. And whatever else results, that would be a good thing.

Aaron David​ Miller is a geoeconomic and strategy senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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