What Does Hillary Clinton Really Think About Netanyahu and America's Israel Policy?

The potential 2016 presidential candidate seems loathe to distance herself from Obama, under whom Israeli-American relations have reached their nadir. Perhaps this is because she disfavors Netanyahu, too.

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If you like America’s Israel policy, you can keep it. That seems to be the message of Hillary Clinton as she maneuvers in advance of the 2016 presidential election. “Hillary Clinton sticks with President Obama on Israel,” is the headline Politico.com put on its dispatch over the former secretary of state's appearance at the Saban Forum. Politico notes that during the appearance she had “several opportunities to distance herself from the Obama administration,” but “she didn’t take them.”

That strikes me as a mistake. I’ve been watching Mrs. Clinton journalistically since she was in Arkansas, and it’s still hard to reckon what she thinks in respect of Israel. She’s served two terms as first lady of America; she was twice elected a senator of New York; she fought a primary campaign for the Democratic nomination for president; and she served four years as secretary of state. Yet she seems loathe to distance herself from the president under whom Israeli-American relations have reached their nadir.

The question is in the air because an ominous tone seems to be creeping into the discussion of America's Israel policy under U.S. President Barack Obama. The most important glimpse of it came last week with Barak Ravid’s cable in Haaretz, reporting that the administration is mulling, as the headline put it, “harsher action against settlement construction.” Ravid quoted Israeli officials as saying that aides in the White house had held “a classified discussion” about the possibility of “taking active measures against the settlements.”

Ravid characterized such a discussion as “extremely irregular” and reckoned it “shows to what extent relations between the Obama administration and Netanyahu government have deteriorated.” He noted that European states have imposed “increasing sanctions,” while heretofore America has “made do with denunciations.” The State Department, according to a dispatch in the Free Beacon, has refused to deny such reports, which were foreshadowed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s famous “chickens**t” scoop in the Atlantic.

That was about the coarseness of the language with which aides of Obama have been speaking of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though he warned that Obama might withdraw diplomatic cover at the United Nations. One would think Ravid's report would have given Clinton just the peg with which to put some distance between herself and the president on Israel, the way she more generally did in her own interview with Goldberg. The magazine pitched it as an outline of her foreign policy doctrine.

In that interview she asserted that “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” But she has yet to lay out her own organizing principle, nor did she even attempt it at Saban – save to underscore, yet again, that she’s not averse to treating with the mullahs. Regarding Iran, she claimed that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and “all options” must remain “on the table.” But, as Politico put it, she “defended the path the White House has taken with Tehran so far.”

“My bottom line is a deal that verifiably closes all of Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons,” she said. “The key there is ‘verifiably’ and ‘all.’” That formulation leaves room for an outcome that would make America a contract party with the Iranian regime. That would betray hopes for liberal democracy in the country that she said, in the same appearance at Saban, she regrets not supporting more strongly in 2009, when the Obama administration stood silent as democratic dissidents were gassed, beaten, and, in some instances, killed.

All in all, Clinton’s latest demarche was not an encouraging moment for those who hope that a hawk could yet soar from the Democratic aerie. Which is something to remember as Israel prepares for its election. The secretary was asked about Netanyahu, for whom, Politico noted, she’d voiced some sympathy in her conversation with Goldberg. She told the Saban forum that there “are going to be differences,” and then said, “And I don’t think it’s personal.”

There’s a principle in politics that when they say “it’s not personal,” well, it’s personal. One could call it one of the few grammatical constructions in the American argot in which the word not is devoid of meaning. And just to carry Clinton’s usage of the word to its logical conclusion, what she means when she says "it’s not personal" is this: There is nothing to be gained by cashiering Netanyahu in the upcoming election. I offer that, thought, by way not of endorsement but of caution.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.