If Hillary Clinton becomes the next president of the United States, the chances of a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will not be high but will be somewhat better than they have been under Barack Obama, several leading Israeli security specialists concur in interviews with Haaretz.
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In their estimation, Clinton could be more successful at bringing the two sides back to the negotiating table because of her deeper grasp of the situation on the ground. The Democratic presidential candidate presided over several sessions of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders during her tenure as secretary of state, from 2009-2013. She served before that as First Lady during a period that saw major breakthroughs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, beginning with the Oslo Accords in 1993. Indeed, her husband Bill Clinton enjoyed great popularity among Israelis during his two terms in the White House.
“I believe she will follow the path laid out by Obama, but because she is more of an expert than him and less nave about the situation here, she could be more productive,” said Jacob Perry, the former director of the Shin Bet security service who is currently a Knesset member from the opposition party Yesh Atid.
Although Clinton may be perceived as more sympathetic Israel than the current U.S. president – since she is generally considered more hawkish on foreign policy issues – Perry said he did not believe she would support the Israeli government’s current policy of “passivity,” as he described it, on the diplomatic front.
Asked whether he thought jump-starting Middle East peace negotiations would be a top priority for Clinton as president, Perry said: “I don’t know if it will be a top priority, but it will certainly be a leading priority.”
Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said that although the current atmosphere in the region was not conducive to restarting peace talks, if Clinton wins the election, he expects that “she will certainly feel the need to try [to do that].”
In Eran’s view, Clinton might want to pick up where her husband left off in 2000, after he tried, but failed, to broker a comprehensive two-state peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.
“What she may do, though, is try to introduce a change in the ‘all-or-nothing’ paradigm by working on some partial agreements,” suggested Eran, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Jordan and the European Union, and was a member of Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinians during Bill Clinton’s second term in office. “There are some issues, like water, which we could reach an agreement with the Palestinians on tomorrow morning – an agreement that wouldn’t have to include thorny issues like the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. She could very well decide to start with little steps like these that eventually lead to a two-state solution.”
Eran does not believe, though, that the Middle East will be a top priority for the new administration, under Clinton. “There are more pressing global issues, like the changing situation in Europe,” he said.
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser, predicted that should she be elected, Clinton would “play Middle East politics smarter” than Obama, and invest greater efforts in making America seem more forthcoming with respect to Israel.
“As a former New York senator," he noted, "she has more of a Jewish 'background.' So she will play more to AIPAC, while Obama played more to J Street,” he said, referring to the two big American-Jewish lobbying organizations, the former far more hawkish in its approach to Israel than the latter.
In the long haul, though, Freilich said he did not anticipate any significant change in policy toward Israel under a Democratic administration. “Things aren’t going to be as close as they used to be with Israel, and Obama wasn’t an aberration in that perspective, but more of a sign of things to come,” said Freilich, currently a professor of international relations at the Interdisciplinary Center – Herzliya and a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“Unless Israel changes its policies on the whole peace process issue,” he predicted, “we’re going to reach a crisis with the United States within the next few years – not only with Europe.”
All three experts agreed that Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate whose chances of winning the election appear dismal at the moment, is a wild card, particularly due to his contradictory statements on the Middle East.
“On the one hand, he says he’s not interested in the United States becoming more involved in Middle East, but on the other hand, he says he wants to cooperate with Russia in defeating ISIS,” noted Eran. “That’s a major deviation in policy from the current administration.”
Although it is difficult to predict his policy on the Middle East, should Trump be elected, his general disinclination to lend American assistance to the world “does not bode well for alliances that the United States was engaged in for decades,” Eran added.
Perry, on the other hand, estimated that as president, Trump might come under pressure from his Jewish consultants to be more engaged in the Mideast peace process. “If I would have to speculate, I would say there will be a cautious involvement in the peace process, if Trump is president,” said Perry, a former minister of science and technology. Despite Trump’s remarks to the contrary, he added that he did not believe the Republican contender would cut back U.S. aid to Israel should he win the election.
Freilich expressed far greater concern about the prospect of a Trump presidency for the Middle East. “What kind of confidence are our regional allies going to have in a leader like this, and how are our adversaries going to view a guy who is such a loose cannon?” he asked. “This can produce not just diplomatic confusion and discord – but it can lead to wars in the Middle East.”
Trump has been extremely critical of the Iranian nuclear deal spearheaded by Obama, but the three interviewees agree that the accord would remain in force no matter which candidate is elected.
“The agreement is a fact, and I am almost certain of that,” said Perry. “Trump may want to change some elements of it, but he can’t scrap it.”
Moreover, as Eran noted: “Even Israel doesn’t call for tougher action against Iran at this point. The campaign to bring about a different agreement is over.”
The one change in this realm that could be expected under a Clinton administration, Freilich added, is that “she’ll keep the Iranians a bit more honest than Obama” when it comes to ensuring their compliance with the agreement.