Eleven years ago, White House spokesmen leaped into action to deny a slip of the tongue by Hillary Clinton in which she expressed support for establishing an independent Palestinian state. For the wife of a president to speak out on such a complex political issue is a rare event. Even more unusual, however, was the official statement issued by the White House: that Hillary's remark reflected her personal opinion, not that of the administration. But the Monica Lewinsky affair erupted at around that time, and this "slip of the tongue" may have been an outgrowth of the tension between the president and his furious wife.
On her current visit to Israel, Hillary is not just Bill Clinton's wife, but rather what people used to call Golda Meir: the "only man" in Barack Obama's administration. She is a strong-minded woman who was within touching distance of the presidency, but did manage - thanks to Obama's smartest move thus far - to land the most important job in the administration, as the president's long arm overseas.
It is not clear whether what she said 11 years ago reflects her opinions today. It should not be forgotten that as a senator from New York, she visited Jewish centers and organizations, which supported her election and her tenure. But on her first visit as secretary of state, she must be received with the maximum respect. All the signs say she will be the most influential person in the Middle Eastern mishmash.
As prime minister, Ehud Barak got into a fight with then U.S. secretary of defense William Cohen, who opposed Israel's sale of Phalcon jets to China. Barak's response was, "I'll settle this with President Clinton." Following that conversation, not only did we not sell the Phalcon to China, but the defense secretary refused to meet with Barak ever again.
Why does all this matter? Because we need to understand that Hillary has enormous influence, and it would be a mistake to circumvent her via the president or Congress and the Jewish lobby. It is vital to treat what she says as if it came from the president's mouth, to avoid getting into fights with her, and to make sure we keep our promises.
As of her current visit, it is still not clear what kind of government will be established in Israel. She will have to treat Ehud Olmert as prime minister, even if he is a lame duck, and do the same with both Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - since, though her party received the most votes in the election, it is still not clear whether she will be in the government or the opposition - and Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been tasked with forming a government, and has not yet decided whether it will be national or nationalist. Will she be able to figure out where Israel is heading?
The most important element in the relationship between the Obama administration and whoever winds up leading Israel is an agreement in principle that each country refrain from surprising the other, according to Danny Halperin, an expert on the United States. In other words, neither they nor we should surprise each other with plans, initiatives or actions to which both parties have not consented. A sort of "no surprises pact," under which neither side takes any action without giving the other a chance to have its say.
Hillary will not be here long enough to find out what kind of government we will ultimately have. But as an observer from the sidelines, it seems that Livni's opposition to joining a Netanyahu government is both firm and justified. Speaking in a closed forum, Livni said she is not willing to cheat her voters in order to secure a cabinet job for herself, as Ehud Barak is trying to do. Shaul Mofaz and Dalia Itzik do not worry her much. In the worst-case scenario, would it not be preferable to build a strong opposition comprising 55 MKs after so many years of governments that have operated virtually as one-man shows?
Netanyahu's offer to Livni is like a man who tells a woman, "first let's get married, and then we'll decide whether or not we're in love." The gulf between Livni's diplomatic worldview and Netanyahu's nationalist worldview is a surefire recipe for chaos. Livni says she does not intend to fall into the trap Netanyahu is laying for her. He will mutter something about two states and two peoples, but without a rotation agreement, she says, the last word will be that of Avigdor Lieberman.
Livni's rigid stance is correct. She is following the right instincts when she says she must not participate in a nationalist government that may pay lip service to two states for two peoples, but will never make it happen. The U.S. secretary of state is coming with the same mantra. But for now, it's not working, neither with us nor with the Palestinians. Don't you have anything new to offer, Hillary?
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