Signaling to Jewish voters that she would be more openly supportive of Israel and tougher on Iran than President Obama, Hillary Clinton told The Jewish Week in an exclusive interview that “it is unfair to put the onus on Israel” for the lack of progress on the Mideast peace front. And she asserted that “Iran should be sanctioned” for the recent launch of missiles Tehran says were designed to be able to hit the Jewish state, something the administration has not been prepared to do.
The comments were made in a one-on-one, 25-minute phone conversation on Friday afternoon while Clinton was campaigning in the Buffalo area for the April 19 New York primary.
The Democratic frontrunner never directly criticized President Obama, with whom she has a complicated political and personal relationship. They were sharp rivals in 2008 in vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. But when the victorious Obama chose her to be his secretary of state, she served loyally and tirelessly, though critics would say less than effectively. They fault her, most notably, for the 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, resulting in the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Obama has praised her as “an outstanding secretary of state” even as she has sought to distance herself, respectfully and often implicitly, from the president, particularly in terms of foreign policy, where she is more hawkish.
In seeking to succeed Obama in the White House, Clinton has positioned herself as the most able and highly qualified successor to Obama. She portrays herself as more worldly, centrist and savvy than her Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-styled Democratic socialist, and more grounded, reasonable and experienced than the two leading Republican candidates for the presidency, billionaire businessman Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Clinton, who lives in Chappaqua in Westchester County and served as senator in New York from 2001 to 2008, appreciates that Obama is highly popular among Democrats. But in garnering political and financial support for her campaign in the Jewish community, she is also aware that many in the pro-Israel community believe the president has treated the Jewish state at times as more obstacle than ally — willing to allow diplomatic daylight between Washington and Jerusalem; impatient with Israel in its dealings with the Palestinians; openly upset and at odds with Prime Minister Netanyahu, whom he sees as arrogant and stubborn; and most dramatically, willing to override Israel’s concerns about a nuclear deal with Iran.
During her tenure as secretary of state, Clinton famously dressed down Netanyahu in a long phone call after Israel announced new settlement plans during Vice President Biden’s visit to Jerusalem. She calls settlement expansion “unhelpful”; she supports the Iran deal. And there are those in the pro-Israel camp who find her declarations of support insincere.
How, I asked her, does she respond to criticism that as president she would follow Obama’s ways treating Israel, and convince voters that her words are genuine?
Clinton’s long and detailed response highlighted — implicitly — the differences between the secretary and her former boss. She said her commitment to Israeli security is “not just policy, it’s personal,” noting that since her first trip to Israel in 1981, “I have worked hard in all my public positions to further the relationship and do all I could to enhance Israeli security.
“We need to take the relationship to the next level,” she asserted.
Often referring to her recent speech before AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobby group, she outlined her work as senator and secretary of state to create sanctions against Iran, support the security fence in Israel, broker a ceasefire to end rocket attacks on Gaza, champion the Iron Dome, weaken terror groups and “elevate the fight against anti-Semitism.”
Clinton said she and Netanyahu “get along well” and, that when allies like the U.S. and Israel have differences, which are inevitable, she would deal with them “quickly, respectfully and responsibly.” Point made.
Echoing her pledge at AIPAC, she added that she would invite Netanyahu for a White House visit during her first month in office and send a Pentagon delegation and the joint chiefs to Israel for early meetings.
On Iran, Clinton noted that she has called for action in the form of sanctions in response to Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests. The U.S. said only that Iran’s action “merits a [Security] Council response.” But a UN resolution passed last year in the midst of the Iran nuclear negotiations is weaker than six previous resolutions that allowed member states to take “all necessary measures” to respond to violations like missile tests. The newest version calls on Iran not to engage in tests, but has no bite.
Clinton said she “strongly” believes that the best way to prevent violations is to “vigorously enforce” the nuclear deal and “create unprecedented transparency.” She noted that “the rest of the world” wasn’t ready to impose new sanctions so soon after approving the deal but said she thinks she could lead an international move to renew sanctions.
As president, “I will use every tool for compliance,” she said, though she did not elaborate.
On the Mideast peace front, Clinton reiterated that she opposes unilateral steps or imposed resolutions in dealing with the Israel-Palestinian conflict. “The United Nations is not the venue” for such diplomacy, given its “terrible track record in addressing these issues.” She said the only path to peace is negotiations “between the parties themselves.”
As secretary of state, Clinton praised Netanyahu for his “unprecedented and significant” 10-month settlement freeze in the face of Obama’s pressure in 2009. She said she empathized with the Israeli leader when, as the freeze was about to end and the Palestinians urged that the deadline be extended, he said no, noting that the other side had made no progress for nine months.
“I regret very much that the Palestinians didn’t take advantage” of that opportunity, Clinton said. “The Palestinians couldn’t act.”
In response to a question as to whether it was fair for the administration and mainstream press to put the onus on Israel for the failure of the peace process, she said, “No, it’s not accurate or fair or useful.” She said she has “a long memory” of Palestinian inaction on the peace front. “I remember when Yasir Arafat walked away” from the Camp David peace talks her husband, as president, tried to broker in 2000 between the Palestinian Authority president and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “It was one of the most comprehensive efforts,” she said, offering a version of the famous Abba Eban dictum that “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
Contrasting her experience to other candidates’, clearly with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump in mind, she said the presidency requires “a steady hand, not someone who is neutral [on Israel] on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who knows what on Wednesday because ‘everything is negotiable.’ Real security is not negotiable.”
As for Sanders’ views on the Mideast, she said, “his comments will have to be read and evaluated by readers.” She emphasized that she believes “national security is of vital importance,” and pointed out that Sanders chose not to go to Washington to address the AIPAC policy conference.
Asked how having a Jewish son-in-law and, according to religiously liberal Jews, a potentially Jewish granddaughter, has had an effect on her family’s dynamics, Clinton said her son-in-law, Marc Mezvinsky, is “wonderful,” and that he and her daughter, Chelsea, are “very thoughtful and concerned parents” who “respect each other’s faith and support each other.”
“Over the years I have learned to accept positions that responsible adults make,” she continued, regarding interfaith marriage. “As a person of faith … I believe it is a great loss for people not to be exposed to teachings in the Judeo-Christian traditions.”
In an emailed follow up to a question about distinguishing between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic behavior in the BDS movement, Clinton wrote: “Here is what I know. Demonizing Israeli scientists and intellectuals, even students, and comparing Israel to South African apartheid is not only wrong — it is dangerous and counterproductive.” She said such language that “vilifies Israelis has no place in any civilized society.”
And on possible next steps at a time when the peace process appears dead in the water, Clinton replied: “It is important that we do not give up on the hope of peace.” She called for “opportunities to rebuild trust” and noted the “need to leverage the converging interests between Israel and Arab states to move forward together toward a two-state vision of a Jewish and democratic Israel with secure and recognized borders.”
At the end of our phone interview I came away impressed with Clinton’s full, articulate and knowledgeable responses. Yet I felt a bit frustrated, like I hadn’t broken through to the real person behind them. Granted, it was a relatively brief, rushed conversation. And talking by phone is not like sitting down with someone in person. In addition, after four decades of living the most public of lives it’s understandable that Clinton may pride herself on her ability to respond to a wide array of questions with alacrity and precision.
But in some ways my reaction may mirror this bizarre presidential campaign where many voters, it seems, crave authenticity and are looking more for passion than policy from the candidates. Has decades of experience in world affairs become a negative factor for an electorate fed up with system?
Hard to say, but it’s clear that Clinton wants American Jews to sense that her support for the Jewish state is not based on politics or polls.