Can Hillary Clinton Save the Battered Relationship Between Israel and the Democrats?

Clinton’s subtle but unmistakable criticism of Obama and promise of something better is designed to encourage the flow from the taps of support from Democratic Jews.

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Hillary Clinton greeted by AIPAC President Lee Rosenberg at AIPAC's 2010 policy conference, March 22, 2010.
Hillary Clinton greeted by AIPAC President Lee Rosenberg at AIPAC's 2010 policy conference, March 22, 2010.Credit: Reuters

It was no coincidence - and probably one of the least spontaneous and carefully coordinated phone conversations ever. Less than two weeks before Hillary Clinton was to make her big 2016 presidential run announcement, Malcolm Hoenlein, of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, called up the likely candidate for a chat and then released a statement summing up her position:

“Secretary Clinton thinks we need to all work together to return the special U.S.-Israel relationship to constructive footing, to get back to basic shared concerns and interests, including a two-state solution pursued through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. We must ensure that Israel never becomes a partisan issue.”

The subtext rang out loud and clear beneath the carefully chosen words: Clinton is positioning herself as the potential savior of the U.S.-Israel relationship, whose ties have been battered by the poisoned personal chemistry between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama following their clashes over the Iran nuclear deal.

The wording reflects a cautious but definite distancing from Obama on Middle East policy that Clinton has been embarking upon throughout the year before her announcement – most expansively in an interview she gave to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in August. This is music to the ears of American Jews, who experienced an identity crisis when the Obama-Netanyahu showdown over the Israeli leader’s congressional speech led to Democrats boycotting the event. While they are no fans of Netanyahu, they feel extremely unsettled living in a world in which the president of the United States appears far more eager to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro than with the Prime Minister of Israel, and in which the best hope for repairing the situation would be a Republican occupant of the White House.

Clinton’s subtle but unmistakable criticism of the second Obama administration’s policies and promise of something better is designed to encourage the flow from the taps of support from Democratic Jews – most prominently entertainment billionaire mogul Haim Saban, who has been openly critical of Obama on Iran and has declared he will spend “whatever it takes” to get Hillary Clinton elected.

In doing so, observes Sigal Samuel in The Forward, Clinton must perform a delicate political dance. On one hand, she must promise Israel supporters that her policies will be different and make things better; on the other, she must maintain a measure of solidarity with Obama and his policies. He is after all, the sitting Democratic president, she was his secretary of state during his first term, and he has openly supported her candidacy.

Somehow, Clinton will have to “sound a sufficiently hawkish pro-Israel note without seeming to undermine Obama’s approach too much. Even as the two are tied together, Clinton needs to boost herself by differentiating herself from him — a task requiring immense political finesse.”

In other words, as Samuel's colleague J.J. Goldberg puts it, “she needs to distance herself from Obama without, um, distancing herself from Obama.”

That tricky circus act is made somewhat easier in the absence – for now – of any real challenger from the more progressive wing of the Democratic party who might accuse her of leaning too heavily in the pro-Israel direction and hurt her standing with the party base.

On the other side of the political map, naturally, Republicans are all too eager to call out Clinton’s attempts to delicately position herself to Obama’s right on Israel.

In a piece headlined, “Hillary Clinton enables Obama’s anti-Israel Vendetta” conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin slammed Clinton for having stood by and remained silent over the past months, “enabling” if not endorsing Obama’s recent behavior, and yet having the chutzpah to call herself a friend of Israel. Rubin characterized Jewish leaders like Hoenlein as enablers of the enabler. “Rather than help [Clinton] remain vague and noncommittal, leaders of pro-Israel organizations should demand some specific answers as to her views before providing helpful summaries that maintain her pro-Israel posturing.since leaving office she — maybe the only figure in the country who could rally Democrats — has been silent while the administration publicly and through background leaks has berated the prime minister, widened the rift between the two countries and thrown concession after concession at the feet of Iran’s mullahs.”

True supporters of Israel, Rubin suggests, would try to force Hillary off of her tightrope and pick a side in the fight, and require her to publicly criticize the Iran deal and its nasty fallout before clasping her to their bosom.

Until she does, we can expect Israel to remain a “partisan issue” in the U.S. election. Rubin’s remarks are downright polite compared to what we can expect to hear from the Republican hopefuls in the presidential race lining up to take shots at Clinton and her positions on Israel.

We know that Netanyahu would surely prefer to deal with an Adelson-backed Republican president like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, or any of the rest of the pack than with Hillary.

And yet – it is a safe bet that if elected, Hillary Clinton could probably significantly improve the tone of Jerusalem-Washington dialogue and forge a far more functional and less fraught relationship with Netanyahu than Obama has.

Clinton described her “complicated” dealings with Netanyahu as secretary of state in a CNN interview: “I've known Bibi a long time and I have a very good relationship with him, in part because we can yell at each other, and we do. And I was often the designated yeller.”

Netanyahu and Clinton are two leaders who are members of the same generation; they share a long history of dealings across the decades and a common language. They are both survivors and pragmatists – they understand and respect each other even if they don’t particularly like one another and disagree on substantive issues. And as any couples therapist can tell you, yelling is usually better than stony silence.

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