Former U.S. President Bill Clinton offered an unexpectedly prescient observation while campaigning for his wife, Hillary, over the weekend in an off-the-cuff monologue triggered by hecklers, who appeared to still be “Feeling the Bern” of the fading Sanders campaign.
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“We cannot really ever make a fundamental difference in the Middle East unless the Israelis think we care whether they live or die. If they do, we have a chance to keep pushing for peace," Bill Clinton said.
"And that’s (Hillary’s) position. Not to agree with the Israeli government on everything, not to pretend that innocents don’t die, not to pretend that more Palestinian children don’t die than Israeli children. But that we can’t get anything done unless they believe — when the chips are down — that if somebody comes for them, we will not let them be wiped out and become part of the dustbin of history."
Clinton hit on a key reason why, in a nutshell, no Obama administration peace initiative has made real progress in Israel, despite how many miles U.S. Secretary John Kerry covered shuttling back and forth in his intense and relentless efforts to move a deal forward. The administration’s dire warnings about the rise of terror, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and the dangers of a one-state reality in the absence of a deal have also had little effect. It is also why the current French initiative is doomed — again, despite the French foreign minister’s doomsday warnings — to end up on the dust heap of other European efforts to move a deal between Israel and the Palestinians forward.
And it is also probably why, no matter how much money Sheldon Adelson invests in Donald Trump’s campaign war-chest and how many Trump promises regarding Middle East policy are extracted in return, Israelis will never get enthusiastic about having the billionaire businessman in the White House, let alone apply his much-touted deal-making skills to their particular set of problems.
When the hecklers interrupted Clinton’s remarks, calling out, “What about Gaza?” Clinton first defended Hillary’s record and pinned blame for civilian deaths on Hamas for firing rockets in populated areas (a move lauded in the Israeli press as “Zionist” and “defending Israel.”) He added a Jewish mama martyr twist when he described his own efforts to hammer out a sweetheart deal thus: “I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state.”
His final point, however — referring to having to convince Israelis that you care if they live or die in order to get anything done — is often neglected in wonky Middle East debates.
It’s what some pundits have called the kishke factor, a feeling that any foreign leader — especially a U.S. president — asking the Israelis to roll the dice on their plan won’t succeed unless Israelis feel certain that when the “chips are down,” they’ll be there to help. And not just out of cold policy calculus, but personal moral commitment, even if it means taking a political hit.
It’s certainly tempting to pin all of the blame for the Kerry dead end on nay-saying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal political calculus. But it also can’t be ignored that there wasn’t — and still isn’t — a groundswell of support for the American-led efforts coming from the Israeli center-left, media elite or the general public, even from those who personally admire Obama and share his liberal politics.
Why? To a great extent, even those who like Obama haven’t trusted the kishkes of a president who has repeatedly exercised caution — and even hesitancy — when it comes to getting the United States involved in Middle Eastern messes. Despite the fact that journalists like The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg — a long-time and expert observer of Obama’s — assured us that Israel is a special exception to Obama’s doctrine of minimal interventionism in the Middle East, the Israelis never quite bought it, even before Bibi’s relationship with Obama went into the deep freeze over the Iran deal.
The question as to how Israel — and its supporters in the U.S. — views the 2016 U.S. presidential race relies, to an extent, on whether Hillary is identified with her husband’s intact “kishke factor,” or Obama’s deficient one.
Thus far, in her impressively managed efforts in the Jewish media and her well-received speech at AIPAC in March, Hillary has held her own, despite efforts to paint her as surrounded by a cabal of Israel-hating advisers based on the Email releases from her private servers. And the stamp of approval from Bill, still the most popular U.S. president among Israelis, goes a long way.
True, she has vulnerabilities that could have been effectively targeted by a Cruz/Rubio/Kasich establishment Republican candidate. But when it comes to Donald Trump, American Jews aren’t the only ones who prefer Hillary in record-setting levels, so do Israelis.
Could that change? Even after Trump’s political embrace by GOP kingmaker and Netanyahu backer Sheldon Adelson — whether Israelis will believe that such an unpredictable man can be depended on for anything, including their defense in the case of an existential threat — it’s doubtful. Only if Trump’s currently contradictory and confusing foreign policy declarations regarding Israel ever begin to take coherent shape, they can be judged against Hillary’s long record in the Middle East trenches.
Until then, the Clinton kishkes have it.