The text of Hillary Clinton’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in March runs 3,301 words, almost every one of them praising Israeli policy in one way or another, and expounding on taking the “U.S.-Israel alliance to the next level.”
Only a single sentence — 15 words to the effect that “everyone has to do their part by avoiding damaging actions, including with respect to settlements” — could possibly be interpreted as criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist right-wing government.
The speech was the battle cry of Clinton the presidential candidate, unflinchingly dedicated to military and diplomatic support of the Israeli government, literally regardless of what policies the Israeli government pursues.
The same stridently pro-Israel tones were echoed in remarks her husband, former President Bill Clinton, made on the campaign trail last week in response to protesters demonstrating against his wife’s support for the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza.
“Hamas is really smart. When they decide to rocket Israel, they insinuate themselves in the hospitals, in the schools, in the highly populous areas, and they are smart,” he said, shifting all of the blame for Gaza’s casualties onto Hamas, and none onto Israel.
But Hillary Clinton has not always been so one-sided on the issue.
Hillary Clinton the secretary of state, for instance, clashed with Netanyahu.
And Hillary Clinton the first lady embraced the wife of the leader of the Palestinian movement.
First lady Hillary Clinton went off script during a 1998 satellite address to a group of Israeli and Palestinian teens meeting as part of the organization Seeds of Peace.
“I think that it will be in the long-term interest of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state, to be a state that is responsible for its citizens’ well-being, a state that has responsibility for providing education and health care and economic opportunity to its citizens,” she said, responding to a question about why she had referred to “Palestine,” a country that does not yet exist.
Her spokesperson Marsha Berry quickly insisted that Clinton was expressing a “personal” view that did not reflect American policy. But to pro-Israel activists and politicians, the damage was already done.
The timing of Clinton’s comments “could not have been worse,” American Jewish Committee President Robert Fikind said at the time.
Her statements “indicate that the Clinton-Gore administration has chosen to align itself with the Palestinians and Yasser Arafat against the people of Israel,” thundered Sen. Al D’Amato, R-N.Y.
Republican New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said Clinton made a “very big mistake.”
“When voices in the White House say there ought to be a Palestinian state before there are guarantees of security, they do not set the peace process forward,” said Rep. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who was campaigning for D’Amato’s seat.
In Israel, the leader of the Likud Party, Uzi Landau, denounced Clinton’s remarks as “a glaring mistake.”
Thoroughly chastened, a White House spokesperson told the press: “I doubt that she’ll be venturing into the Middle East peace process any time soon.”
The next year, Clinton again raised eyebrows during a trip to the Middle East. She attended a speech at which Suha Arafat, the wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, accused Israel of using poisonous gas against Palestinians. Despite the controversial remarks, Clinton kissed Suha on the cheek, as is customary in the region.
The kiss turned into a political headache for Clinton, who was hit with an ad featuring that image by the Republican Jewish Coalition — the very first political ad the then-nascent group had ever aired — as she prepped a run for U.S. Senate in New York.
During her successful run for the Senate seat from New York, Clinton displayed little sympathy for the Palestinians. Sheldon Silver, a powerful New York assemblyman and stridently pro-Israel Democrat, reportedly took Clinton under his tutelage, guiding her views on the conflict. Silver “acknowledged to me that she had some people around her that are troubling, but that she herself will be different,” said Mort Zuckerman, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
On the campaign trail, she deflected when asked about Palestinian statehood. And as a senator, Clinton served as a faithful ally of Israel who rarely raised concern about the plight of the Palestinians. Issues such as settlements, housing demolitions, and other violations of Palestinian rights were absent from her 2005 speech to AIPAC. The same year, she boasted of visiting Israel and defending its right to build a separation barrier that cut deep into Palestinian territory, a move that the International Court of Justice had in the previous year ruled illegal.
In July 2006, when Israel was bombarding Lebanon and Gaza, Clinton addressed thousands of New Yorkers at a pro-Israel rally where she praised the fighting. The fact that the Israeli air force intentionally destroyed Gaza’s primary power plant was not mentioned by Clinton, who, the New York Times noted, “focused almost exclusively on Israel’s right to act militarily and unilaterally … with little mention of civilians in Lebanon and Gaza.” In Clinton’s words, Israel’s heavy bombardments were part of its “efforts to send a message to Hamas, Hezbollah, to the Syrians, to the Iranians — to all who seek death and domination instead of life and freedom — that we will not permit this to happen and we will take whatever steps are necessary.”
Human Rights Watch later reported that “Israel’s indiscriminate airstrikes … caused most of the approximately 900 civilian deaths in Lebanon during the July-August 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.” A group of senators, reacting to the carnage, moved legislation to block the export of cluster bombs to countries that use them against civilians. It was defeated along a 30-70 vote, with then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., voting for it, and Clinton against.
She kept that staunch posture during her failed presidential run against Obama in 2008. Veteran politics watcher Ron Kampeas noted that Clinton’s Israel platform went “so far as to outflank President Bush from the right,” promising an undivided Jerusalem and implicitly castigating her opponent for promising to meet with the leadership in Iran.
As the Obama’s administration’s secretary of state, however, Hillary Clinton took a less hardline position, sometimes offering moderate protest of Israeli policies.
Early in the first year of Obama’s presidency, Clinton’s State Department pressed Israel on its embargo of Gaza, provoking a backlash from pro-Israel figures. “I am very surprised, frankly, at this statement from the United States government and from the secretary of state,” Mort Zuckerman, the publisher of the New York Daily News, said.
“I liked her a lot more as a senator from New York. … Now, I wonder as I used to wonder who the real Hillary Clinton is,” right-wing New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind said.
In mid-2009, Clinton publicly demanded an end to settlement expansion, saying the president “wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions.”
The next year, the Israeli government announced the construction of 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem — Palestinian territory where the U.S. government opposes settlement building. The announcement coincided with a visit by Vice President Joe Biden to Jerusalem.
Clinton openly expressed her displeasure, saying that “the announcement of the settlements, the very day the vice president was there, was insulting, it was really a very unfortunate and difficult moment for everyone.” Her spokesperson P.J. Crowley told the press that she called Netanyahu to tell him that the announcement of settlements “had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process and in America’s interests.”
“So, yes,” she said during a 2012 speech at the Brookings Saban Center, “there is more that the Israelis need to do to really demonstrate that they do understand the pain of an oppressed people in their minds, and they want to figure out, within the bounds of security and a Jewish democratic state, what can be accomplished.”
Clinton, as secretary of state, was obviously obliged to follow the lead of President Obama, who from the beginning of his presidency pushed back on demands from a group of pro-Israel leaders who wanted there to be “no daylight” between Israel and the United States. Referring to Middle East policy during the Bush administration, Obama told them that there had been “no daylight and no progress” toward peace. Although there has been no large break with the Israeli government over issues like military aid or diplomatic protection at the United Nations, Obama’s remarks did presage clashes with Netanyahu over a settlement freeze and a nuclear deal with Iran.
But the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014 — just a year after Clinton left the State Department — provided a litmus test of absolute support for Israel. And Clinton showed no signs of struggling over whose side to take.
In a July 2014 visit to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Clinton faced a barrage of questions during the online-only part of the interview about the humanitarian issues regarding the people trapped in Gaza. She was having none of it. “They’re trapped by their leadership, unfortunately,” she said.
“The Israelis are absolutely right in saying that they can’t just sit there and let rockets rain down,” Clinton told Stewart, echoing the Israeli leadership’s justifications for its actions in the war, which saw enormous bombardment of civilian infrastructure that one former U.S. Army lieutenant general and military analyst called “astonishing.”
Stewart offered a more empathetic view of Hamas from the perspective of the Palestinians in Gaza living under an Israeli-imposed blockade that served as collective punishment for electing Hamas in 2006. “And if you’re living in that situation, couldn’t you see yourself thinking, ‘These are our freedom fighters?'” Stewart asked.
“You know, Jon, I don’t agree with that,” Clinton replied.
The lack of even a modest critique of the savagery of the Israeli attack on civilians in Gaza contrasted with the views of Democratic voters; a Gallup poll conducted during the fighting found that a plurality of self-identified Democrats viewed Israel’s actions in Gaza as “unjustified.”
And in her own campaign for the presidency, Clinton has eradicated any sign of the daylight Obama considered so essential. She telegraphed her approach in a July 2015 letter vowing to combat the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement. She sent that letter to Haim Saban, a billionaire entertainment magnate who once told The New Yorker that he’s a “one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel.” Saban and his wife have given at least $5 million to one outside Super PAC backing Clinton.
Clinton wrote that “we need to make countering BDS a priority” and “fight back against further attempts to isolate and delegitimize Israel.” Her last paragraph was telling. “I am also very concerned by attempts to compare Israel to South African apartheid. Israel is a vibrant democracy in a region dominated by autocracy, and it faces existential threats to its survival,” she wrote.
This was perceived as an unsubtle attempt to distance herself from her successor at the State Department, John Kerry. In April 2014, Kerry told a group of diplomats that if Israel does not allow Palestinian statehood soon, it risks becoming “an apartheid state” that rules over millions of people with second-class status. Although this warning has been delivered by numerous Israeli leaders themselves, including former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, it caused a firestorm among pro-Israel activists, and Kerry soon said that he regretted his initial remarks.
In a statement addressing a flare-up of violence in October, she wrote that she was “alarmed by the recent wave of attacks against Israelis. … Men and women living in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere cannot carry groceries or travel to prayer without looking over their shoulder. It is wrong, and it must stop.” The statement was a clear reference to a wave of violence that indeed included stabbings of Israeli civilians largely by Palestinian youths.
But what Clinton ignored was the amount of violence being visited upon occupied Palestinians by the Israeli military at the same time. Nearly 30 Palestinians were killed by Israeli military operations and almost 1,990 were injured up through October 13. During the same time period, seven Israelis were killed and dozens were wounded.
The next month, she published an op-ed in the Jewish Daily Forward where she boasted that she “stood with Israel my entire career” and promised to invite Israel’s prime minister to the White House during her first month in office.
Some in the pro-Israel activist community in the United States view Clinton’s posture today as a return to her more genuine beliefs. “Her positions or policies [as secretary of state] often had to reflect that of her boss,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, who from 2009 to 2014 served as director of Israel policy and advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly and is the president of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America.
In Weinblatt’s telling, under the Obama administration “there was little reluctance to express publicly points of difference with Israel. And so I think that we can expect a different approach from Hillary. … She recognizes that more can probably be achieved from a hug than from a distancing. I think she recognizes and knows that when Israelis feel that the United States is truly supportive of Israel, Israel feels it can take more risks.”
Former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley, who served under Clinton, said her stance today is due to a strategic rather than philosophical difference from Obama. “The Obama strategy of insisting on a settlement freeze as a condition for negotiations backfired in the absence of a compelling relationship between the president and the Israeli people,” Crowley told The Intercept. “His approach was rational; it simply didn’t work. Hillary Clinton is trying to strengthen her bona fides with the Israeli public as a pre-condition to testing the process as president. This is far less about American politics than regional politics.”
The public unwillingness to recognize Palestinian suffering came up, briefly, during the Brooklyn debate with her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, who repeatedly pressed Clinton on her position. “I read Secretary Clinton’s statement speech before AIPAC. I heard virtually no discussion at all about the needs of the Palestinian people. Almost none in that speech,” said Sanders, to applause from the audience.
Clinton, on the defensive, did not concede that Israeli policies such as settlement expansion in the West Bank or the embargo on Gaza were responsible for Palestinian suffering. Rather, she repeatedly blamed only Hamas, saying that “to create the conditions for peace when there is a terrorist group embedded in Gaza that does not want to see you exist, that is a very difficult challenge.”
Joel Beinin, a Middle East expert at Stanford University, told The Intercept that what Clinton was saying was actually more radical than what Sanders was saying. “Sanders simply articulates what is officially national policy and has been American national policy since shortly after the 1967 war,” he said. “That is to say there should be a withdrawal, Israel should withdraw to something like the 1967 boundaries, there should be contractual peace between Israel and the surrounding Arab states.”
That same week, Clinton paid a visit to the New York Daily News editorial board — whose publisher, Mort Zuckerman, had denounced Clinton’s Israel-Palestine policy as secretary of state. Clinton succinctly summarized her new approach to Israel-Palestine: “I think any disputes or disagreements should be handled in a respectfully and preferably private way, so we don’t give any aid and comfort to Israel’s adversaries or drive any wedges between us.” In other words, if Israel’s doing anything wrong, she won’t call them on it, at least not in public. The paper endorsed Clinton a day later.