WASHINGTON – They applauded her entrance. They applauded intermittently throughout her speech. The loudest and most sustained ovation, predictably, came when she demanded that “Gilad Schalit must be released immediately and reunited with his family.” Overall, the reception, if not euphoric, was warm.
But most importantly, even though just 10 days ago she had apparently questioned, in her ground-shaking 43-minute telephone conversation with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whether Israel was truly committed to its bilateral relationship with the United States, not a soul among the 7,500 American pro-Israel activists who gathered to hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the AIPAC policy conference on Monday had the temerity, however mildly, to boo.
Clinton, it should be stressed, was careful to give them few overt opportunities to do so. Here and there, indeed, where she departed from her prepared text, it was to further emphasize the nature of her commitment, and that of her administration, to Israel’s well-being.
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Her prepared remarks, for instance, included the declaration that “for President Obama, for me, and for this entire administration, our commitment to Israel’s security and Israel’s future is rock solid.” In delivery, after “rock solid,” she chose to add, “unwavering, enduring and forever.”
Similarly, in the section of her address that highlighted her personal exposure to Israel’s “struggles and sorrow,” she extemporized a clause about meeting with victims of terrorism in Israeli hospital rooms.
And yet the secretary’s address to AIPAC should have been troubling to the ears of Israelis, and to the ears of Israel’s supporters in the US. For at its heart was a profound questioning of the Netanyahu government’s commitment to peace.
The speech was peppered with assertions that “the status quo is unsustainable,” that “the status quo of the last decade has not produced long-term security,” that “the status quo strengthens the rejectionists” and that “it becomes impossible to entrust our hopes for Israel’s future in today’s status quo.”
And this succession of observations was married to repeated entreaties that Israel find a “new path” to the two-state solution, that Israel take further “concrete steps that will help turn that vision into reality – building trust and momentum toward comprehensive peace,” and that Israel follow the example of Moses, no less, with its Passover-timed lessons that “we must take risks, even a leap of faith, to reach the promised land.”
When Moses urged the Jews to follow him out of Egypt, the secretary reminded her audience, “many objected. They said it was too dangerous, too hard, too risky. And later, in the desert, some thought it would be better to return to Egypt. It was too dangerous, too hard, too risky... And when they came to the very edge of the promised land, there were still some who refused to enter because it was too dangerous, too hard, and too risky.”
But Israel’s history, she declared, “is the story of brave men and women who took risks and did the hard thing because they knew it was right.” And today, for Israel to survive, “for the state to flourish, this generation of Israelis must take up the tradition and do what may seem too dangerous, too hard, and too risky.”
This was stirring and, on the face of it, not particularly controversial stuff. But the stress that Clinton chose to place on the untenability of the current reality, and her repeated exhortations to the Israeli leadership to change it – along with markedly less prominent and detailed demands for the Palestinians and the Arab world to do their bit – suggested one of two real problems in the critical US-Israel relationship: Either Israel, under this government, is not demonstrating to a savvy, worldly Washington that it is truly doing what it can to advance the shared interest of peace; or Israel is genuinely doing what it can, but the Obama administration is too inexpert, too influenced by those who place insufficient blame on the Arab side for the deadlock, to appreciate it.
“Last June at Bar-Ilan University, Prime Minister Netanyahu put his country on the path to peace. President Abbas has put the Palestinians on that path as well,” Clinton declared at one point. Much of her text indicated that she doubted the first of those two sentences. Very little of her text suggested that she doubted the second.
Clinton stated that the demographics were working against Israel. She noted that extremists were emboldened by the failure to achieve peace. And she claimed, strikingly, that “the ever-evolving technology of war is making it harder to guarantee Israel’s security... Despite efforts at containment, rockets with better guidance systems, longer range, and more destructive power are spreading across the region.”
These were, she reiterated time and again, the warnings of a friend. The United States, she took pains to assert – despite the frictions of the past 10 days, and her own centrality to them – was standing firmly at Israel’s side to grapple with these dangerous trends, “sharing the risks and shouldering the burdens, as we face the future together.”
But there was no escaping the sense that she was trying to deliver a wake-up call to an Israel perceived by this administration, to some extent at least, as blundering intransigently toward disaster.
On the Ramat Shlomo dispute itself, most tellingly, she explained that “we objected to this [new construction] announcement because we are committed to Israel and its security, which depends on a comprehensive peace. Because we are determined to keep moving forward along a path that ensures Israel’s future as a secure and democratic Jewish state living in peace with its Palestinian neighbors, who can realize their own legitimate aspirations. And because we do not want to see that progress jeopardized.” (The italics were in the official text.)
So is the problem here that Israel – for all Netanyahu’s declared support for a two-state solution, his easing of West Bank freedom of access and his facilitation of major projects to improve the West Bank economy – is nonetheless dashing a willing Palestinian leadership’s desire for viable peace terms through the expansion of settlements and Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem and other provocative actions?
Or is it the case that the Palestinian leadership re-demonstrated its
intransigence when rebuffing Ehud Olmert’s take-it-all peace terms, and
that the Arab world underlined its hostility by rejecting the Obama
administration’s entreaties to normalize ties with Israel, even just a
If most Israelis believe the latter, if most Israelis have long since
recognized that the much-cited status quo is working against us, if
most Israelis fervently wish that Israel could, through its own
actions, resolve our conflict with the Palestinians and the Arab world,
the message behind Secretary Clinton’s speech on Monday – for all its
phrases of friendship and solidarity and partnership – was that the
administration thinks differently.