WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the country’s largest pro-Israel lobby that the Israeli-Palestinian status quo was “unsustainable” and defended her recent criticism of east Jerusalem housing as in Israel’s interest to bring about peace.
“It is our devotion to this outcome – two states for two peoples, secure and at peace – that led us to condemn the announcement of plans for new construction in East Jerusalem,” she told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference Monday, which came on the heels of some of the worst tension between the two countries in years after the new housing was announced during US Vice President Joe Biden’s recent trip to Jerusalem.
“This was not about wounded pride. Nor is it a judgment on the final status of Jerusalem, which is an issue to be settled at the negotiating table,” Clinton said of the US’s strong condemnation of the housing, which she delivered to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a scathing phone call upon Biden’s return. “This is about getting to the table, creating and protecting an atmosphere of trust around it – and staying there until the job is finally done.”
She argued those talks are urgently needed because demography, technology and ideology help make maintaining the status quo impossible.
Clinton pointed to the violence Israel finds itself under, criticizing Hamas and Hizbullah for launching rockets at Israel.
“Behind these terrorist organizations and their rockets, we see the destabilizing influence of Iran,” she said. “Reaching a two-state solution will not end all these threats, you and I know that, but failure to do so gives our extremist foes a pretext to spread violence, instability, and hatred.”
While calling for Palestinians to end incitement, and praising Prime Minister Netanyahu – who has apologized for the timing of the east Jerusalem announcement – for embracing a two-state solution and easing movement in the West Bank, she also said the US wants Israel to build trust “by demonstrating respect for the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians, stopping settlement activity, and addressing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”
Clinton’s message on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was received politely if not enthusiastically by most of the 7,500 or so AIPAC activists at her Monday morning speech. Despite the recent tensions, there was no obvious booing or other voicing of disapproval, and several of her comments on the subject received some applause.
Her statements on Iran, however, garnered much more enthusiastic backing.
“The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” she said to one of a handful of standing ovations. “Our aim is not incremental sanctions, but sanctions that will bite.”
Clinton began by stressing the strength and importance of the US-Israel relationship, despite the recent disagreements.
“For President Obama and for me, and for this entire administration, our commitment to Israel’s security and Israel’s future is rock solid, unwavering, enduring, and forever,” she declared, receiving sustained applause. “A strong and secure Israel is vital to our own strategic interests. We know that the forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States.”
Clinton was preceded by AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, who received a standing ovation himself when he declared, “Jerusalem is not a settlement.” He also pushed back against what he called “the reductionist view that the relationship between the United States and Israel rests on resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”
He called the notion “specious and insidious,” as well as dangerous, and continued, “we must refute it.” Kohr also called for the US and Israel to move past their recent row.
“It is time to reduce the tension, time to set aside the past week and pledge to work to solve problems together,” he said.
His remarks were more measured than those of Lee Rosenberg, the new AIPAC president, who received an enthusiastic standing ovation Sunday evening when stressed to the crowd, “Allies should work out differences privately.” He said that “in any relations mistakes are going to happen,” adding, “how friends disagree can determine the course of our relationship.”
Several members of the Jewish community expressed concern about the nature of the American response, even as many acknowledged Israel had made a mistake with the timing of the east Jerusalem announcement. Critics particularly objected to Clinton’s call to Netanyahu after the matter seemed settled and her later telling the media that the move was an “insult” to America and seemingly questioning Israel’s commitment to peace and relationship with the US.
Alan Solow, whose organization the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations took a measured tone in asking both sides to overcome their differences, said it was fitting that Clinton delivered the message of reassurance on the US-Israel relationship Monday given her role in the recent dispute.
“It gave her the opportunity to speak personally with the community to make clear her position,” he said.
He also indicated that the speech conveyed a welcome message, but that the US-Israel relations didn’t rest on a single address or event.
“This was an important speech and she sent an important message on the heels of what’s occurred in the last 10 days,” he said, “but the real strength of relations and the continuity of that relationship will be demonstrated in the day and months ahead.”
In her speech, she explained to the audience that “as Israel’s friend, it is our responsibility to give credit when it is due and to tell the truth when it is needed.”
As such, she called new construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank action that “undermines that mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides say want and need.”
And, just as crucially, she said, “It exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit,” which in turn “undermines America’s unique ability to play a role – an essential role – in the peace process.”
She underscored, “Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally.”
To that end, she said, she took the Palestinians to task for incitement, including the recent naming of a city square in the West Bank in honor of a Palestinian woman who killed Israeli civilians in a terror attack.
She also told Israel, though, that “we cannot escape the impact of mass
communications. We cannot control the images and the messages that are
conveyed. We can only change the facts on the ground that refute the
claims of the rejectionists and extremists, and in so doing create the
circumstances for a safe, secure future for Israel.”
Clinton acknowledged that “we cannot force a solution; we cannot ordain
or command the outcome” in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Still, she
said, “The United States stands ready to play an active and sustained
role in these talks.”
Throughout, she pledged, “The United States and the American people
will stand with you. We will share the risks and we will shoulder the
burdens, as we face the future together.”