The coming shift: Hillary Clinton's plans for Israel and Iran

Hillary Clinton’s inner circle speaks to the 'Post' on how her administration will handle relations with Israel and Iran.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton consults with senior foreign policy adviser Laura Rosenberger and speechwriter Dan Schwerin backstage after addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, March 21, 2016 (photo credit: BARBARA KINNEY/HILLARY FOR AMERICA CAMPAIGN PHOTOGRAPHER,JPOST STAFF)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton consults with senior foreign policy adviser Laura Rosenberger and speechwriter Dan Schwerin backstage after addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, March 21, 2016
NEW YORK – Hillary Rodham Clinton is preparing to dramatically shift the tone and tenor of relations with Israel away from a publicly disputatious posture adopted by the Obama administration, according to several of her top aides, who in conversation with The Jerusalem Post outlined, for the first time, her detailed plans for the alliance should she win the White House on November 8.
On the question of Iran, on the challenge of Middle East peace and in bilateral relations between the two countries, Clinton sees an opportunity to turn the page after eight years of turbulence – to bring disagreements in from the cold, back behind closed doors, and to rebuild trust between their leaders and peoples.
Her team describes a former diplomat eager to reassert where Israeli and American interests converge. President Clinton’s focus, they say, will be to reconstitute an environment in which Israelis are willing to follow US leadership, motivated by the belief that tactics from the last administration proved counterproductive to its well-intentioned pursuit of peace.
Their description of Clinton’s vision amounts to a notable rebuke of a sitting president of the same party, whose legacy relies on her success.
“Reestablishing trust is going to be relatively straightforward for her,” Martin Indyk, director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from 2013 to 2014, said in an interview. “I think President Obama got off on the wrong foot with the Israeli people, and I think that secretary Clinton is determined not to do that.”
IF BARACK Obama ever had a shot at earning the trust of the Israeli people, it may have been extinguished as early as June 4, 2009, in Cairo.
After calling on Israel, from the largest city in the Arab world, to end its settlement activity and the “dislocation” of Palestinians, Obama chose not to fly on from Egypt to Jerusalem. On his first trip to the Middle East as president, he intentionally skipped the Jewish state in the belief that creating distance between himself and Israel would earn him credit with Arab states.
Clinton was uncomfortable with Obama’s approach from the start, said aides who served with her from that period, and throughout her tenure at the State Department privately questioned his strategy of tough love while serving as one of his most loyal soldiers in public.
Officials close to the president believe that his approach was justified, overdue and ultimately in Israel’s best interests: It was the Israeli government experiencing a failure of leadership, they say, and pressure from Washington may compel it to do what is necessary for the preservation of a secure, democratic and Jewish state.
Clinton disagreed. Those around her characterize a politician well aware of the governing stresses facing Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the effects that a tough American line have had on Israel’s coalition politics.
She wholeheartedly agrees with Obama’s ultimate vision for a two-state outcome between Israel and the Palestinians, but she rejects his tactics in getting there.
“She realizes and knows that there are constructive steps toward creating a conducive environment,” said Laura Rosenberger, a senior foreign policy adviser to Clinton, “and there are steps that are less constructive that can be taken by different sides – all sides. Creating a conducive environment would be her first objective.”
Clinton hopes that if she, Obama’s fellow Democrat, acknowledges America’s role in deteriorating relations, Israel will be humbled to do the same.
“She has said that she wants to manage differences quietly,” said Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs and Obama’s chief negotiator during the Iran nuclear talks. Sherman is now one of Clinton’s most senior advisers. “She’s not at all interested in having others drive a wedge between the US and Israel, and she doesn’t believe a solution can be imposed from without. She will not plunge headlong into an initiative that hasn’t been thought through.”
Current and former advisers described her affinity with Israel as rooted in a traditional school of thought: She views the state through the prism of a generation that witnessed repeated trials of its national character, in which the Jewish state demonstrated itself as a democratic haven in an illiberal Middle East.
Bearing witness to those events throughout her life, Clinton has come to understand the battle-hardened Israeli mind-set, her aides said – one that has brought her rather in line with Netanyahu’s understanding of terrorism as a generalized threat against civilized societies.
“She has an emotional values connection with Israel, but also a strategic interests connection,” said Dennis Ross, a veteran diplomat of the Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Obama administrations.
“Where there is some instinctual difference with the president is that she’s more mindful of how you deal with the Israelis in public so you don’t necessarily put them in the corner,” Ross continued. “In his mind, the Israelis are strong and the Palestinians are weak, so it’s on the Israelis. But in her view it takes two to tango.”
Unlike Obama, Clinton does not see terrorism in Israel and the Palestinian territories as a distinct and separate experience brought on by Israeli policies. She rather sees a “rising tide of extremism across a wide arch of instability,” she told the Brookings Institution last December, describing one of three trends that are further converging US and Israeli national security interests.
The other two trends, Clinton told Brookings, are “Iranian aggression” and efforts to pressure Israel on the world stage.
One of those stages may soon be the United Nations Security Council, where at least one proposal is under consideration that would internationalize the conflict by outlining parameters for a two-state solution.
Israeli officials fear the Obama administration will support this measure during the president-elect’s transition period – a move adamantly opposed by Clinton.
“The White House is well aware of secretary Clinton’s views,” Sherman said. Obama administration officials declined to comment for this report.
IN HER 2014 book Hard Choices, Clinton described with regret the administration’s early stance on Israel’s settlement activity. It “locked ourselves into a confrontation we didn’t need,” she wrote. “In retrospect, our early, hard line on settlements didn’t work.”
But it was not only in retrospect that Clinton expressed frustration, according to Ross.
“She caught grief when she was secretary and said the moratorium was unprecedented,” he recalled, describing Netanyahu’s announcement of a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in 2009. “The White House didn’t like it. But she knew it was true, and I know she knew, because I talked to her afterwards. She thinks that when the Israelis act, they should get credit for it.”
Tweaking the State Department’s public line will be a relatively easy task for Clinton. The real challenge is how without public pressure to further the policy itself, which will remain unchanged: As with every president since construction first began, Clinton plans to oppose Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank. She, like Obama, fears it will permanently erode the prospects for a two-state solution.
“I’ve never bought this argument, to keep it in private. That’s a bit simplistic,” said Indyk. “The objective circumstances are such that I cannot imagine any of her advisers, whoever they might be, telling her that this is a place where she can make real progress. But the devil will be in the details here, because there’s a real concern increasingly expressed in Washington that the window is closing [on two states] because of settlement activity.”
And so public diplomacy will take Clinton only so far. She hopes that navigating familiar terrain respectfully and in private – at least in her first year as president – will earn her political capital with the Israeli people that she can use to press for action at a later date.
“I think here the Israeli government has a key role,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a senior US government adviser during the 2013-2014 Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. “It has a chance, after eight years of tension, to turn the page with Washington. But if their approach is going to be that Obama is gone, and therefore we have more wiggle room on settlements, then they’re going to undermine anyone in Washington who wants to turn the page.”
Netanyahu’s analysis of his coalition options will determine the way forward, Makovsky asserted. But Clinton’s knowledge of Israeli politics will help her recognize what is possible to achieve and when – a basic principle of statecraft.
“The settlements will continue to be a disagreement. But I think where she’s had disagreements with the president is, for example, in demanding a settlement freeze without consulting the prime minister about it first,” said Stuart Eizenstat, former US ambassador to the European Union and deputy secretary of the Treasury.
Eizenstat, whose consultations with senior members of the Clinton campaign were released by WikiLeaks this month, has worked closely with Clinton on Holocaust issues for 25 years. “I can’t conceive of that happening under Hillary’s administration,“ he added.
Eizenstat has informally advised the Clinton campaign on foreign policy since she launched her candidacy, encouraging a tough line on Iran during the rollout of an international deal meant to govern its nuclear work.
Clinton’s “true” convictions on Israel have been fodder for those reading tea leaves in WikiLeaks’ email dumps, which have highlighted a wide spectrum of unrequited advice sent to Clinton aides ranging from those with Eizenstat’s political inclinations to others with a more combative predisposition toward Israel.
“I don’t speak for her, and neither do they,” he said of Clinton’s legion of unofficial consultants. “They take some advice and they don’t take some.”
Clinton’s official advisers say she would support a substantially revised Arab Peace Initiative that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state and outlines a clear path toward normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world – an idea that Indyk called “stale thinking,” but nevertheless an opportunity for Clinton to set out her own vision for what a just and lasting peace should look like. She is more enthusiastic over the potential for blossoming Arab-led initiatives such as one pioneered by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which teases greater cooperation on a host of converging American, Arab and Israeli interests.
Regardless of which path emerges, Clinton will remain “very firm” in her belief that a two-state solution is the only way to end the conflict comprehensively – and that a one-state solution is no solution at all.
“But she does recognize that right now is a very difficult time, in terms of trying to make progress on the peace process,” Rosenberger said. “Right now she believes that for any negotiation to succeed, you have to have the right context for it to succeed.”
IN APRIL 2015, as Clinton prepared to announce her second campaign for president, Obama was readying an announcement of his own. A landmark nuclear deal with Iran was nearly complete that would require his successor to enforce the political accord.
Preparing for a fight on Capitol Hill over the agreement, Obama needed his favored horse in the Democratic race to endorse this policy with enthusiasm. But there was a problem. As she learned of details of the deal, Clinton increasingly felt as though she were in a box.
According to her aides, Clinton was enticed by the nuclear deal’s emerging inspections and verification regime, which she thought would offer unprecedented visibility into Iran’s vast nuclear infrastructure. But she was deeply concerned with its sunset clauses, which would lift all major restrictions on Iran’s nuclear work over time and, she feared, legitimize the growth of its program to an industrial scale.
So she called the Israelis.
“Don’t get vested in the deal,” Israeli leaders advised Clinton and her team. The message was clear: Whereas the sitting president had become personally invested in the success of a legacy project, Clinton had the opportunity to create distance. Seizing it would give her credibility as president to enforce the accord.
And so distance was created. “Reasonable people can disagree,” Clinton said on the merits of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, shortly before tepidly endorsing the deal – a move acknowledged even by Israelis as a political requirement of the prospective presidential candidate, and one she has conditioned, repeatedly, ever since.
“Obviously, the deal does allow for some different things in the out-years,” one senior Clinton foreign policy adviser said, searching for the right word. “That was something that she thought long and hard about when she was debating whether or not to support it.”
Clinton’s careful handling of the Iran deal at its outset provided comfort to the Israeli government, which sees in her a leader more comfortable than Obama with the exercise of traditional American power. But her critics worry that she may invest herself in the deal over time – potentially by surrounding herself with advisers already wedded to the agreement from their time in the Obama administration. On the other hand, Obama administration officials worry that Clinton will put the agreement at risk in her attempt to toughen rhetoric.
Clinton is especially concerned that internal change in Iran will disrupt the deal – not just at the presidential level but at the level of supreme leader, given the rumored state of health of 77-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“We’re just going to have to take this year by year, because Iran has politics, and we don’t know what’s going to happen in 2017,” Sherman said. “When I was doing the negotiation, [Abbas] Araghchi would say to me, ‘How do we know the next American president will implement this?’ And I’d say, ‘How do we know your next president would implement this?’ So, yes, everyone should take this step by step.”
Clinton’s top aides acknowledge she remains concerned with the nuclear deal’s sunset provisions. She does not believe that Iran should be allowed to “play well” for eight to 10 years, only for the US to let its guard down.
“The secretary is looking ahead, and looking to ensure the sustainability of this agreement,” said a second senior Clinton foreign policy adviser. “I would say there’s probably a change in tone, and we’ll also see more broadly that the secretary will further invigorate work with Israel and the Gulf on efforts in the region from the IRGC to destabilize the Middle East.”
Clinton supports clean reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act by the end of the year – a move the Obama administration considers unnecessary, but one she believes will send a clear message to Iran on how she plans to enforce the agreement. She plans to explore punitive measures against Tehran should it continue its increasingly frequent ballistic missile testing. And she hopes to foster intelligence cooperation between Israel and its neighbors, based on Iran’s continued malign activities.
“I think she comes to the question of Iran from a position of real skepticism,” said Rosenberger. “She sees the nuclear deal as, really, one piece – an important piece.”
OBAMA OFTEN refers to the American presidency as a historic relay race, in which one president hands off to another a baton representing the national interest and, in the modern era, the security of our world.
“Sometimes when we take the baton, we’re behind in the race – and we don’t always choose the circumstances when we get the baton,” Obama said in March. “The question is, for our leg of the race, did we advance the causes we care about? Did our team gain ground against the challenges that we care about?”
The president would be the first to admit that America’s bipartisan goal of achieving Middle East peace has stalled – if not been set back – since he first took office eight years ago. The White House would likely argue that fault lies primarily with Israel for its failure to act within its power in its long-term interests. Certainly, the outgoing administration believes with conviction that the existential threat Israel once faced from Iran has been resolved, even as Israelis worry it has merely been deferred.
Clinton appears eager to run her leg of the race with a different pace. And while these two leaders agree on where the finish line is, she appears to have different ideas on what it will take to get there.
“Clinton sees power as a continuing currency in international relations, whether you’d prefer it to be that way or not,” Ross said. Makovsky put it another way: “You see somebody who seems very pained by the tension that has existed over the last few years surrounding Iran and settlements – someone coming to the table who prides herself on her pragmatism.”
The former secretary seems gripped by the potential opportunities that arise upon a change in leadership – whether it be in the US or the Palestinian Authority, in Israel or Iran. She seems to subscribe to personality politics, in that she believes the individuals who lead these governments will bring with them the will or the cowardice that ultimately determines policy-making.
To that end, Clinton hopes that her friendships with Israel’s leaders can improve bilateral relations. She worries that individual deaths in Ramallah and Tehran may throw temporarily manageable crises into chaos. What Clinton knows she can ultimately control is the personality that she projects, and she seems to think that her own election will bring with it an opportunity to reset the way American leadership is interpreted in the Middle East – a vague yet culturally neutral understanding of power projection that Obama has rejected, but that she will embrace.
“It’s a marathon, but the field changes,” Sherman said of the struggle that is navigating US policy in the Middle East. “You may start out with a dry field, and the landscape ends up raining cats and dogs. It may begin to blizzard and then suddenly turn 108 degrees.”
“I think with secretary Clinton, it always starts with very solid footing,” she continued. “She really does have an unshakable commitment to Israel’s security. That very solid footing will be the base of everything she does.”