If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dreams of staying in power until 2017, at the fringes of that dream lurks a nightmare — the Democrats remaining in the White House even after President Barack Obama waves goodbye.
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And not just the Democrats, but Hillary Clinton, who has held a grudge against Netanyahu since 1996, when he distanced himself completely from her husband, President Bill Clinton, and aligned with the Republicans.
In about two months, candidates from both parties will begin gearing up for the 2016 primaries; Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning quickly in the run-up to the November 2016 vote, as the Republicans waste their energy fighting each other, look fairly good.
A Hillary victory in November 2016 would be a rebirth for Madeleine Albright as well. Until 1996, only white men had been secretary of state. But Albright started a 15-year trend: Her successors were Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, until Clinton made way for John Kerry to gain some independence and prepare for that distant election.
Albright is still a close friend of Hillary’s, and even though she says she won’t seek an official position in the next administration — she’s four months shy of her 80th birthday — she’ll still have inside information and influence.
So it was no trivial matter when officials of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center lifted the secrecy this month and published an interview that Albright had recorded for posterity eight years ago.
It seems fairly certain that Albright is saying what Hillary is careful to keep to herself; this includes doubts about former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and particularly about Netanyahu.
Albright, who worked under National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski during the Carter administration, was the UN ambassador during Clinton’s first term, when the weak Warren Christopher was secretary of state. Upon his reelection, Clinton offered the position of secretary of state to George Mitchell, the outgoing Democrat Senate majority leader.
Mitchell, who had just begun raising a new family and knew that Clinton was still making up his mind between him and Albright, had to decide between parenthood and power. He told the president that while he wouldn’t refuse, he wouldn’t get the lobbyists involved either.
Albright won, and the precedent worked magic for Clinton. Albright stood by him during the Monica Lewinsky affair. In her interview, Albright said flexibility, the opposite of consistency, typified most top people in the administration. All were smart, some were brilliant, but what set some people apart was their sense of loyalty.
Bill tells a lie
The scandal happened to break on a day Yasser Arafat visited the White House. Clinton waited until the Palestinian leader left and then told Albright a secret: It was all a bunch of nonsense. Nothing had happened; there had been no affair of any kind with Lewinsky.
Albright wanted to be convinced, and she succeeded. When Clinton repeated his story in a meeting with top officials, Albright volunteered to go out to the media and declare that she believed him.
When his lies were trumped by the evidence, she was furious, but her vulnerability and loyalty brought her closer to Hillary, the betrayed wife. I spent a lot of time with her, Albright said. She was wonderful. Truly.
Albright particularly remembers a dinner with Hillary and Queen Noor of Jordan: of the three women, one was divorced (Albright), one was widowed (Queen Noor) and one’s husband had dishonored her publicly (Hillary).
As an alumna of the Carter administration — Carter dismissed UN ambassador Andrew Young when his talks with the PLO became known — Albright had a hard time adapting to the turnaround that the Oslo Accords represented. She explains the process in the interview.
“You’ve got this great photograph. I think that what became so clear was that the U.S. could play a really important role. The picture of Clinton, like this, bringing them to shake hands, is kind of symbolic of the whole thing,” she says, noting that Arafat hesitated until the last minute.
“It was very typical of what would happen with Arafat. You never knew where he was going to go. But that started off a series of attempts on our part to be much more involved.”
As Albright puts it, “At the UN my job was to try to work to get the UN to be more Israel-friendly, to stop passing resolutions condemning them, and to ultimately get them into various groups and all that. So there was an ongoing process.
“I think one of the great historical, political tragedies of all time was [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s assassination. Because the whole process was based on Rabin being, as Arafat used to say, ‘a partner in the peace of the brave.’ The plan was that there would be these interim issues that they would work on. That would be a process that would allow them to work on the more difficult-permanent status issues, that they would learn to work together.”
Even Albright hesitated, in her own way. “The difficulty of watching Rabin shake hands with Arafat — and I have to tell you my own thinking,” she says.
“I was sitting in the audience and Arafat starts coming down off the stage and I think to myself, Andy Young was fired for talking to the PLO. How can I shake hands with Arafat? My God, you’re so stupid, Rabin just shook hands with Arafat. You can shake hands with Arafat.”
Hamas and Hezbollah
The process’ momentum was lost with Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Albright notes — Hamas’ terror attacks, Hezbollah's Katyusha rockets in the north, Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon.
And then “[Prime Minister Shimon] Peres gets defeated and Netanyahu comes in. Now instead of having a lubricant, like Rabin, you had sandpaper like Netanyahu. Netanyahu was really difficult. We spent an incredible amount of time with him. Clinton was very interesting in this because he is so politically gifted. He understood the politics of Israel very well and had incredible discussions with Netanyahu.”
Albright quotes what she told Clinton in the 1990s: “‘Just because Netanyahu sounds like an American politician and doesn’t have an accent, he’s not an American. There is a different mindset on all of this.’ Netanyahu just drove us crazy.”
Benjamin Netanyahu and Bill Clinton in the Rose Garden of the White House, 1996 (Credit: AP)
She notes how Clinton was very tuned into the details at the 1998 Wye River talks. “So he proceeds. Netanyahu gets defeated and Barak comes in. I remember so well. I met with Barak as an opposition leader. I thought what bad luck I had that Netanyahu was my first Israeli partner, because he was just unbelievably difficult,” she says.
“Then when I met with Barak, we’d come out of a meeting with Barak and say, Wouldn’t it be great if he were now prime minister? So he becomes prime minister and we spend an incredible amount of time with Barak, who was elected on this peace platform. He decides that he wants to move with the Syria track first. I think we tried to persuade him not to do that, but he said that will help; it will make it easier to do the Palestinian track.”
To Albright’s disappointment, Barak “turned out to be bold but very difficult in terms of how he negotiated. When we were doing the Syria track in Shepherdstown, he had promised us that he would take a certain set of steps. Then he gets in and says, ‘I’m not going to do them,’ even though he had been the one who wanted us there. It was like dealing with — I don’t want to be patronizing, but — with children. It was really hard. What was interesting was to have remembered what Wye was like, because the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators actually got along very well.”
Bill Clinton walks with Yasser Arafat, Madeleine Albright, and Al Gore on the grounds of Wye River Conference Center, October 18, 1998.(Credit: AP)
When the Israel-Syria track failed, the delegates wouldn’t even sit at the same table. As Albright notes, “we started in on the Palestinian stuff and just spent incalculable hours. Dennis [Ross] and his team would be in the Middle East a lot of the time. I would go a lot. The president would meet people in different places; I would meet people in different places. It was probably the central theme of everything we did.
“Clinton was endlessly innovative and endlessly patient with all of this. So the Camp David aspect of this was one in which it was a matter of the last push on it. I told you one mistake I thought we made, but also I think there was probably a mistake made in acting as if it had failed. If we had just said it was part of the process, we could have picked up the pieces more.”
Without absolving Arafat of his share of responsibility, Albright blames Barak for contributing to the missed opportunity.
Barak makes problems again
“Barak would not give us his bottom line on it at all. Barak actually, as time went on, was very forthcoming in terms of what could be done on Jerusalem and how to move forward,” she says.
“Arafat was perfectly capable of making the decisions about the size of the Palestinian state. He was the leader. But he did not have sole authority about the disposition of the holy places. We were asking him to make some compromises.”
Albright recalls that she and Clinton saw Jerusalem “in four concentric circles.” The outer circle was the Jerusalem suburbs that entered the game after the 1967 Six-Day War. The next circle was the suburbs of the Old City. Then there was the Old City, and within that the holy places.
“We had come to agreements on the three outer circles pretty much so that what was Arab would be Palestinian, and what was Jewish would be Jewish. It would be a divided city in a variety of ways. The fact that Barak would even agree to that was important. Then we get to the holy places and we did a lot of discussion about sovereignty,” she says.
“We actually came up with a new term. It didn’t go very far, but ‘divine sovereignty.’ If in fact this was God’s — somebody said this was so complicated that God sent three different messengers. So we tried that, but it came down to who owned the top and who owned the bottom and who would dig up and who would dig down.”
She says Arafat was asked to make those decisions, “and he couldn’t, because for that you needed approval of the other Arabs.”
“Because Barak had not told us his bottom lines, we had not, to use Dennis’ favorite word, ‘conditioned’ the Saudis or various people,” she says. “When we started calling them, they didn’t know what we were talking about, so time was lost. Then, after Camp David, violence erupted and various things. [Ariel] Sharon went to the Temple Mount. But we continued a lot of negotiations.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat enjoy a moment at Camp David, July 20, 2000. (Credit: AP)
Albright recalls that Sharon “was horrible to Arafat at Wye and horrible to the Palestinians,” though his “change of heart as he evolved as prime minister was quite interesting.”
Sharon and Rabin are gone, Netanyahu is still around and Hillary Clinton is, once again, not on the inside. It might be better to say “not yet on the inside.” Either way, it’s clear that if Hillary is elected president, her close circle will include Albright — coarse, irritating and preferring friction over softness.
In short, sandpaper, just like her characterization of Netanyahu. And Netanyahu will have to deal with her.