Who’s the Israeli government’s best spokesperson? Ron Dermer? Michael Oren? Bibi himself? Nope. It’s Hillary Clinton. In her interview on Sunday with Jeffrey Goldberg, Clinton offered the most articulate, sophisticated, passionate defense of Netanyahu’s conduct I’ve heard from a government official on either side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, important chunks of it aren’t true.
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Let’s take her claims in turn.
In his first term, Netanyahu moved towards a Palestinian state
Clinton began her defense of Bibi by noting that in his first term, in the late 1990s, he had “give[n] up territory” and “moved in that direction [towards a Palestinian state], as hard as it was.”
That’s extremely generous. It’s true that in 1997, Bibi withdrew Israeli troops from most of the West Bank city of Hebron (though they can reenter any time Israel wants) and the following year signed the Wye River Accords, under which Israel was supposed to hand over 13 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority (though Bibi’s government fell before it could do so).
What Clinton leaves out is that Bibi only agreed to these withdrawals to forestall the far larger ones envisioned under the Oslo Accords he inherited from Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. In 1993, when Oslo was signed, Bibi publicly compared it to Neville Chamberlain’s surrender of the Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler.
He accepted Oslo in the 1996 election campaign only because he couldn’t repudiate a process endorsed by the Israeli center and championed by the United States. So Bibi sabotaged Oslo by accelerating settlement growth and minimizing the amount of land Israel relinquished. “Before I took office,” he later boasted, “the conception was to give away everything except for two percent [of West Bank] while I turned everything around and gave just two percent to [full control] of the Palestinian Authority.” Or as he told settlers after leaving office, “I stopped the Oslo Accords.”
The Clinton administration officials who dealt with Bibi in his first term understood this all too well. “Neither President Clinton nor Secretary [Madeleine] Albright believed that Bibi had any real interest in pursuing peace,” writes Dennis Ross in The Missing Peace. Ross’ deputy, Aaron Miller, adds in his memoir that, “all of us saw Bibi as a kind of speed bump that would have to be negotiated along the way until a new Israeli prime minister came along who was more serious about peace.”
That’s a far cry from what Hillary told Goldberg. Then again, Ross and Miller aren’t running for president.
Bibi agreed to a settlement freeze but Abbas wouldn’t negotiate
Fast-forwarding to the Obama years, Clinton claims that, “I got Netanyahu to agree to the unprecedented settlement freeze… It took me nine months to get Abbas into the negotiations even after we delivered on the settlement freeze.”
What’s striking, again, is what Clinton leaves out. The settlement freeze was indeed, unprecedented. Unfortunately, it didn’t actually freeze settlement growth. It’s not just that, as Clinton admits, the “freeze” exempted East Jerusalem. Even more importantly, it exempted buildings on which construction had all ready begun. This loophole proved crucial because, as the Israeli press reported at the time, settlers spent the months preceding the “freeze” feverishly breaking ground on new construction, on which they continued to build during the ten month “freeze,” before breaking new ground once it expired. As a result, according to Peace Now, there was more new settlement construction in 2010 - the year of the freeze - than in 2008. As Obama administration envoy George Mitchell admitted to Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat, the Obama administration had wanted a freeze that truly stopped settlement growth but “we failed.”
Clinton’s claim that Abbas refused to negotiate until the last minute is disingenuous too. In fact, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met repeatedly during the “freeze.” In January 2010, just over a month after it began, veteran Israeli columnist Ben Caspit reported that, “In the past weeks, Israeli representatives, including Netanyahu, have repeatedly rejected official documents that their Palestinian counterparts have tried to submit to them, with details of the Palestinian positions on all the core issues. The Israeli representatives are completely unwilling to discuss, read or touch these documents, not to speak of submitting an equivalent Israeli document with the Israeli positions.”
While reporting my book, The Crisis of Zionism, I heard four different Obama officials confirm this account. During the settlement “freeze,” the Palestinians submitted to Netanyahu and his aides the same positions they had submitted to Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert. These included a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines with a 1.9 percent land swap for territory inside Israel proper, Israeli control of all the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, international troops in the Jordan Valley and the return of 150,000 Palestinian refugees over ten years. The Netanyahu government, by contrast, steadfastly refused to discuss the parameters of a Palestinian state.
In her interview with Goldberg, Clinton never mentions that.
Netanyahu’s views on Palestinian statehood resembled Ehud Barak’s.
Given the evidence that during her time as secretary of state, Bibi refused to discuss territory, Clinton’s claim that “I saw Netanyahu move from being against the two-state solution to…considering all kinds of Barak-like options” is bizarre. Whatever you think of Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David in July 2000, it was a detailed offer. Netanyahu, by contrast, refused put forward a territorial proposal not merely during Clinton’s term, but during John Kerry’s far more aggressive effort to broker a deal. During the Kerry negotiations, according to Haaretz’s Barak Ravid, Netanyahu “flatly refused to present a map or even to discuss the subject theoretically…throughout the nine months of the talks Netanyahu did not give the slightest hint about the scale of the territorial concessions he would be willing to make.”
It’s too bad Goldberg didn’t press Clinton on what kind of “Barak-like options” she heard Netanyahu propose, because the best reporting we have suggests he offered no territorial “options” at all.
Netanyahu is right to demand indefinite control of the West Bank
Most remarkable of all, Clinton tells Goldberg that, “If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have security [control over the West Bank].” What makes this statement so remarkable is that earlier in the interview, Hillary praised the Clinton parameters outlined by her husband in December 2000. Those parameters permit Israeli troops to remain in the Jordan Valley, along the West Bank’s border with Jordan, for three years. Later in the interview, Clinton claims that she convinced Abbas to agree to allow Israeli troops to remain for “six, seven, eight years” and that she “got Netanyahu to go from forever to 2025” as a date for their withdrawal. Even this, from a Palestinian perspective, represents painful backsliding from the position outlined by Hillary’s husband. But as Hillary must know, Bibi three weeks ago said that in light of regional developments, “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” Which is to say that, as of now, Bibi’s position really does seem to be “forever.” Yet rather than challenge that stance, Clinton endorses it.
Why does Clinton again and again endorse Netanyahu’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even when it contradicts long-standing American positions? Because she’s so willing to see the world through his eyes. Notice how she begins her statement about security control of the West Bank: “If I were the prime minister of Israel.” There’s nothing wrong with that. U.S. officials should understand, and empathize with, Israeli leaders, even right-wing ones. But what’s missing from Clinton’s interview is any willingness to do the same for Palestinians. If it’s so easy to understand why some Israelis might want perpetual military control of the West Bank, why can’t Clinton understand why Palestinians - after living for almost fifty years under a foreign army - might not want it to indefinitely patrol their supposedly independent state.
One of the hallmarks of Barack Obama’s statements about Israel and Palestine, going back to his 2008 presidential campaign, has been his insistence on giving voice to the fears and aspirations of both sides. Writing about his trip to Israel in The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote that, “I talked to Jews who’d lost parents in the Holocaust and brothers in suicide bombings; I heard Palestinians talk of the indignities of checkpoints and reminisce about the land they had lost.” In Jerusalem last March, he spoke movingly, and in detail about the Jewish story, but also asked Israelis to “put yourself in their [the Palestinians] shoes. Look at the world through their eyes.” In her interview with Goldberg, that’s exactly what Clinton does not do. Her interpretations of recent Israeli-Palestinian history reflect from a deep imbalance: a willingness to see reality through Israeli eyes and an almost total refusal to do the same for Palestinians.
“For far too long,” wrote Aaron Miller in 2005, “many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as Israel's attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations.” From the beginning, Barack Obama has tried to avoid that. Although he hasn’t brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace, he has tried to make good on his campaign promise to “hold up a mirror” to both sides. In Hillary Clinton, by contrast, at least judging from her interview on Sunay, Israel has yet another lawyer. And a very good one at that.