Hillary Clinton Pressed for an Israeli National Unity Government in 2009, New Book Claims

'Alter Egos' by N.Y. Times' Mark Landler contains never-before published details about U.S.-Israel ties during Clinton's tenure as secretary of state.

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Barak Ravid
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Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laughs as she meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, September 27, 2012.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laughs as she meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, September 27, 2012.Credit: Reuters
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

On Hillary Clinton’s first visit to Jerusalem as U.S. secretary of state in 2009, about a month after the elections in Israel, she pressed then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to accede to Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal for a national unity government, according to a new book published in the United States.

The book, “Alter Egos,” was written by Mark Landler, a New York Times political correspondent. Landler covered Clinton, now the front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary race, when she was secretary of state and subsequently covered the White House and President Barack Obama. His book deals with the relationship between Clinton and Obama from 2009 to 2013. Some parts of it focus on the crisis between Israel and the United States, failed attempts to advance the peace process, and Obama’s and Clinton’s relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Clinton’s March 2009 visit took place only a few weeks after the election in Israel, when Livni was still serving as foreign minister and conducting coalition talks with Netanyahu. Landler writes in his book that Clinton asked Livni to join a national unity government because she wanted to prevent the establishment of a right-wing government in Israel that would lead to a clash with the new American administration.

According to Landler, in a private meeting between Livni and Clinton, Livni said no to Clinton’s suggestion because she said Likud would never accept her demands.

Although a number of books have been written over the past few years by Americans and Israelis who held senior positions in the Obama administration or the Netanyahu government, Landler’s book has a few details never published before about U.S.-Israel ties between 2009 and 2013. For example, the author reveals that Clinton refused a specific request from the White House to fly to Israel after Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009.

A few days before the speech, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel told Clinton that he was concerned that Obama’s not visiting Israel after his Cairo speech would insult the Israelis. He suggested that Clinton, who had been in Cairo with Obama, continue on from Cairo to Jerusalem “to do damage control.” Landler quoted a former senior administration official as saying “she couldn’t, wouldn’t and didn’t.”

Obama’s senior advisers were furious, viewing the secretary’s decision as based on personal political considerations motivated by her desire to avoid harming her image as a friend of Israel and her relationship to the American Jewish community, Landler writes. According to the book, Clinton’s refusal to go to Jerusalem after Cairo was one example of her clear disinclination to be involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process due to concern over political damage that would hurt her in a future run for the presidency.

Clinton’s distancing herself in 2009 from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, at the time a key issue the White House was trying to advance, was a major source of tension between her and Obama. According to the book, that tension came to a head in a meeting between the two on the margins of the UN General Assembly in 2009, a few days after a meeting between Obama, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Landler wrote that Obama “chided her, telling her that she needed to travel to the Middle East more often and that she needed to become more personally involved in steering the process,” rather than delegating it to the special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell.

Landler writes that Clinton had her doubts about Obama’s demand in 2009 that Netanyahu freeze construction in the West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem completely, believing it was not the way to obtain concessions from Netanyahu. However, as secretary of state she advocated the policy on which Obama had decided and tried to persuade Netanyahu to agree to the demand.

According to Landler, at a State Department dinner in Washington in May 2009, during Netanyahu’s first visit after putting together his government, Clinton took him aside and told him that the settlement freeze was very important to Obama. According to Landler, a person who was there said Netanyahu told Clinton, “I can’t do that.”

A week later, Clinton spoke out sharply against the settlements and said that Obama was demanding a complete freeze. But while Clinton was speaking, talks were underway between Mitchell and representatives of the Israeli government toward a deal that would allow for construction within the large settlement blocs to accommodate natural growth only. According to the book, Clinton’s statements sabotaged those talks. The Israelis were livid and Obama’s advisers were irritated that Clinton had “plussed up” Obama’s position – corralling them into a more hardline position than they had wanted to take.

Landler writes that the relationship between Clinton and Netanyahu during her term as secretary of state was relatively good, but had its share of tension and conflict. She called him Bibi, but “often it was attached to the f-word.” Landler writes that in one of their conversations during the endless talks on the settlement freeze, Clinton took her cellphone and silently began knocking it against her head as a sign of frustration.

One of the low points in the Clinton-Netanyahu relationship, according to Landler, was at an eight-hour meeting in November 2010 at the Regency Hotel in New York, when they tried to find a formula to extend the settlement freeze for three months. According to the book, during the meeting Clinton raised a number of ideas, including the early release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. But Netanyahu and his adviser, Isaac Molho, conducted the negotiations like a battle of attrition and bargained over every minor detail.

During that negotiation the United States proposed giving Israel 20 F-35 stealth fighter jets worth $3 billion, in exchange for a three-month extension on the construction freeze in the settlements. Clinton was afraid that even if Israel agreed to the deal, it would not satisfy the Palestinians and would not lead to direct negotiations. Landler says Clinton later told Tony Blair, then special envoy of the Quartet to the Middle East, that “she found the whole exercise a nasty business.” A few weeks later, the whole deal fell through because of the opposition of Israel’s inner cabinet. “With it went any chance for a breakthrough during Clinton’s years as secretary of state,” Landler writes.

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