WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton launches her second presidential campaign as a former statesman during a challenging time for global security – for the Middle East in particular, and for a US foreign policy establishment shaken up by recent actions taken by the Obama administration.
As secretary of state – her most recent résumé line and the only new credential she brings since her last run for the Democratic nomination in 2008 – Clinton notes high among her achievements her brokerage of a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza in 2012, as well as the construction of an international sanctions regime against Iran over its nuclear work.
Since her departure from the administration, those stories have developed dramatically: Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority has collapsed, its alliance with US President Barack Obama has strained, and a historic deal is in the offing between world powers and Iran, one that Israel strongly opposes.
During Clinton’s pause from public life, Obama and his team accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of politicizing the US-Israel relationship, of interfering in a domestic political debate on Iran, and of obstructing the sole pathway to peace with the Palestinians through his continued endorsement of settlements.
Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill hope to avoid having to choose sides between their president and the prime minister.
Clinton will not have that luxury; she will be forced to endorse or reject a nuclear deal during the course of her campaign. That “hard choice,” as she calls things of this nature (it is also the title of her memoir), will have a direct effect on the outcome of the negotiations.
“Their goal is a diplomatic solution that would close off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb and give us unprecedented access and insight into Iran’s nuclear program,” Clinton said last month of the US president’s efforts in the Iran negotiations, prior to the announcement of a framework agreement reached at the beginning of this month in Lausanne.
“Reasonable people can disagree about what exactly it will take to accomplish this objective,” she continued, “and we all must judge any final agreement on its merits.”
Should Clinton win her party’s nomination, she will be the spokeswoman for the future of the Democratic Party, largely eclipsing the president. And with Republican opposition to a nuclear deal all but guaranteed (Libertarian Rand Paul supports the diplomatic effort more than any other GOP contender), US participation in an agreement will rely on her political willingness to support it.
Democrats on Capitol Hill are aware of this. Should Clinton endorse legislation that would grant Congress oversight powers on an Iran deal, Democratic lawmakers will have sufficient political cover to vote for the bill – and against Obama – thus providing support for the bill beyond the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto.
Such a move could be interpreted as a betrayal inside the Obama White House, where the president’s team takes credit for giving Clinton her seat at the table as secretary of state. Maintaining support within the administration while distancing herself from its unpopular policies will be a difficult task for her in the months ahead.
But given the impact an Iran deal will have on a host of foreign policy files, she will not be able to avoid discussing Iran at length in the months to come. And her opponents-in-waiting, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, are already casting her positions as part of the “Obama-Clinton foreign policy.”
Nor will Israel be a topic of conversation that Clinton will easily be able to defer.
Last month, she spoke by phone with Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, as rhetoric from the White House against Netanyahu intensified.
“Secretary Clinton thinks we need to all work together to return the special US-Israel relationship to constructive footing, to get back to basic shared concerns and interests, including a two-state solution pursued through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians,” Hoenlein said in a statement after the call.
In her recently updated memoir, Clinton put distance between herself and the president on his public rebukes of Israel’s settlement activity.
That distance might now be wider, as the rebukes have sharpened in recent weeks. Israel will be watching Clinton closely to see what the future might hold for the US-Israel relationship. So, too, will the American Jewish establishment, a small but influential constituency in US politics.