Clinton hopes to reassure US Jews, Israeli leaders

Why is Clinton visiting precisely at this time, on the tail end of an exhausting trip?

July 16, 2012 00:59
US Secretary of State Clinton

US Secretary of State Clinton. (photo credit: Pring Samrang / Reuters)


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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.

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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 March.

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.

Romney is 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 election.

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 W.

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 you.”

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 Israel.

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.

Clinton will 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.

Setting election 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 there anymore.

As US Ambassador Dan Shapiro said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post three months ago, “The prospects for immediate breakthroughs are probably not very high.”

Clinton is not coming here seeking or expecting any breakthroughs.

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.

Reality 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.

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