Since becoming US secretary of state in 2009, Hillary Clinton has been in the
air 1,776 hours, flown 816,839 miles, been out of the US for 339 days, visited
100 countries and taken 71 trips abroad.
Three of those trips have been
to Israel, the first two within the first 10 months of taking office, at a time
when the Israeli-Palestinian issue was a top priority for the Obama
administration. Her last visit was in September 2010, some 22 months ago, during
that fleeting period when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed
to speak with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
During the intervening
months, she has visited Turkey three times; the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia
and Oman twice; and Egypt once.
She visited Egypt in March 2011, but did
not come calling on Jerusalem, just as her boss, US President Barack Obama,
visited Egypt in June 2008 to give a landmark speech, but also did not take the
short flight over for a visit to Israel.
Clinton’s itineraries over the
last three-and-a-half years and all those facts and figures lead one to ask a
simple question: Why now? Why is Clinton visiting precisely at this time, on the
tail end of an exhausting trip that has taken her, in a matter of days, to
France, Afghanistan, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Egypt? There
are those who may argue it is clear that Clinton had to go to Egypt now to meet
newly elected President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that if she
was already in the neighborhood, she needed to drop in on Jerusalem. Except that
she did not feel any such compunction to stop by when she visited Egypt last
Why come now, at a time where there is no real movement on the
Israeli-Palestinian track, and there is unlikely to be until at least after the
November US elections? Sure, there is always Iran to talk about – but that has
also been a major issue over the 22 months when she did not come for meetings.
So what gives? What gives is that the Israel part of her trip could be called
the “tranquilizer” leg of her travels. Clinton is coming both to calm down American Jews and Jerusalem.
After such a prolonged
absence, it is difficult to believe that it is mere coincidence that she is
visiting precisely now, just two weeks before Republican presumptive
presidential candidate Mitt Romney is scheduled to arrive.
taking a break from his campaign to come here and send a message to American
Jews and non- Jewish supporters of Israel in the US that he cares. Those who
will accuse him of shameless pandering to the Jewish vote would do well to
remember that both candidate Obama and his rival John McCain made similar visits
to Israel in July 2008, just some four months before that year’s national
McCain has returned a number of times, Obama has not –
something that will be highlighted by the Republicans looking to attack Obama’s
positions on Israel. Obama’s supporters, however, will counter that George
Bush, widely viewed as very pro-Israel, also did not visit the country
during his first term in office.
Due to the obvious difficulty of
organizing a presidential trip to the Holy Land now, Clinton is coming instead,
and the trip itself is meant to send a calming message to American Jews – “Don’t
worry, we stand by and support Israel; Don’t let the Romney visit fool
Regarding the tranquilizing message to Jerusalem, that is likely to
come in the form of Clinton’s briefing Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders on
her talks with the new Egyptian president.
Well aware of Israel’s deep
concerns about Mursi and what his election may eventually do to the Egyptian-
Israeli peace treaty, Clinton is expected to allay Israel’s fears and say not to
worry. Mursi has enough on his plate right now dealing with Egypt’s humongous
domestic problems, she will say, and does not need to incur American – and
international – wrath by unilaterally doing away with the peace treaty with
Besides, she is likely to point out, the man is a president
without an army, since he is engaged in a fierce power struggle with the
Egyptian army. How can he confront Israel at this time, if it is not clear the
army stands behind him? The Palestinian issue will come up during Clinton’s
talks here, but only as an afterthought. With Egypt in the midst of dramatic
change, Syria aflame and Iran still marching toward nukes, the Palestinian issue
does not have the same importance for the Obama administration that it did when
Clinton made two trips here within 10 months back in 2009.
undoubtedly repeat well-worn platitudes about the need to restart the diplomatic
process with the Palestinians, and the importance of negotiations. But less than
four months before the US presidential elections, the secretary of state will
obviously refrain from anything that could be interpreted by pro-Israel
supporters in the US as undue pressure on Israel.
considerations aside, however, much has happened since Clinton’s first trip here
as secretary of state in February 2009. If at the beginning of Obama’s term
there was a sense in the White House that if they could just get Israel to stop
settlement construction, all the pieces in the peace jigsaw puzzle would begin
to fall into place, three-and-a-half years later, the administration is not
As US Ambassador Dan Shapiro said in an interview with The
three months ago, “The prospects for immediate breakthroughs are
probably not very high.”
Clinton is not coming here seeking or expecting
Indeed, success will be measured on the Palestinian
track if ways can be found to just keep the ball from rolling backward – meaning
keeping the Palestinians from pursuing unilateral steps at the UN, which Israel
would likely respond to with unilateral steps of its own – or preventing Fatah
from joining with Hamas in a government without first recognizing Israel’s right
to exist, forsaking terrorism and accepting previous agreements.
has intervened in the threeand- a-half years since Clinton arrived here first as
secretary of state, representing a new president who thought he saw an opening
to solve a problem that befuddled a string of presidents before him. And that
reality has proven sobering indeed.