Washington Watch: Hillary at State: Why worry?

She can be expected to promote a more active peace process without pushing na?ve initiatives on an anxious Israel.

douglas bloomfield224.88 (photo credit: )
douglas bloomfield224.88
(photo credit: )
No secretary of state will come to that office with stronger pro-Israel credentials or closer ties to the Jewish community than Sen. Hillary Clinton, who President-elect Barack Obama is expected to nominate right after Thanksgiving. Naturally, that doesn't stop the Jews from worrying. The Left fears the junior senator from New York is too close to the pro-Israel hardliners and won't aggressively press for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and the right fears she will. Even before Obama has picked his national security team, Washington is awash in speculation about peace plans, new and old. When two former national security advisors in administrations not considered friendly to Israel wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post last week and one met with the president-elect, Israeli pundits panicked, extrapolating that the two were sketching out the Obama administration's new Middle East policy. A right-wing blogger sounded the alarm over speculation that a possible Obama pick for national security adviser had criticized Israel's obsession with West Bank security. It reminds me of the telegram warning, "Start worrying. Details to follow." CANDIDATE OBAMA had vowed to plunge into Mideast peace-making on taking office, but that was before the economy tanked. Jewish doves rightly worry that the economic crisis will distract his administration from the peace process, but a greater problem will be a deeply divided Palestinian government, with Hamas preferring armed struggle to negotiations. Also, the upcoming Israel election means there won't be a government in place in Jerusalem before spring. The latest polls show Likud opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu most likely to become the next prime minister, and he has vowed to shut down the year-old Annapolis peace talks. It would be "a real tragedy" to let those negotiations lapse, said Marine Gen. James L. Jones, Obama's expected choice as national security adviser. Jones, the former NATO commander, is the Bush administration's special Middle East envoy for security issues, and generally considered friendly toward Israel, but an unpublished report he wrote this fall has been called a "scathing" critique of Israel's approach to West Bank security issues. Clinton reportedly has Obama's commitment to let her pick her own aides, rather than have them dictated by the White House, as often happens. If, as expected, Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration's top Mideast peace envoy, gets a senior post, look for the 2009 Obama approach to the peace process to have roots in the final six months of the Clinton administration. BILL CLINTON remains hugely popular in Israel, as does his wife, who has built her own solid pro-Israel bonafides since embarking on an independent political career. Bill may be an asset in Israel, but he could be excess baggage elsewhere. The Left sees Hillary as too close to the Jewish establishment, which has shown little enthusiasm for the peace process, and the right still hasn't forgiven her for embracing Yasser Arafat's wife during a 1999 trip to Ramallah or endorsing Palestinian statehood four years before George W. Bush made it official US policy. Obama moved quickly to quash any speculation he will be anything but what he promised during his campaign, as when he told a Palestinian audience, "If you're waiting for America to distance itself from Israel, you are delusional. Because my commitment, our commitment, to Israel's security is nonnegotiable." His first appointment was the son of an Irgun fighter, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, as chief of staff. (The Arab media has branded him a Mossad agent.) Earlier, Obama had picked another shtarker, Sen. Joe Biden, as his vice president, and now, apparently, Hillary Clinton. That, plus 78 percent of the Jewish vote, means Obama is likely to get very strong American Jewish support for any new peace initiatives and to win the confidence of Israeli leaders when it comes time to make the tough compromises essential to any peace agreement. Hillary's great challenge will be to remember who IS President, who ISN'T and who WAS. She will have to focus on rebuilding relationships damaged during the Bush years of "my way or the highway" foreign policy, taking the lead from the man she once described as not ready to be president. But she is known and respected around the world, she is one of the smartest people in politics today and she has persuasive skills that may help restore America's stature and influence in the international arena - a pillar of Israel's security as well as our own. In the Middle East peace process, as in other policy areas, Obama seems intent on charting a pragmatic, centrist course. While that will disappoint both the Jewish Right and Left, it could prove a welcome change after eight years of the Bush administration's faith-based foreign policy and not-so-benign neglect of the peace process. Sen. Clinton, as secretary of state, can be expected to promote a more active peace process without pushing naïve initiatives on an anxious Israel. What's so worrisome about that?