A region in crisis. Two nations at war. Rockets are fired and, in the distance, explosions are coloring the night sky bright orange. As billowing smoke rises from the ruins of bombarded buildings, the voices of news anchors are heard: “Rockets continue to fire from Gaza and massive explosions rock Gaza city. There is panic and fear in the streets of Israel tonight.”
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Finally, as the music swells over photos of destruction, a diplomatic savior appears: Hillary Clinton. “She flew through the night,” says one speaker. Another opines: “She has steel in her spine.” Finally, after “intense shuttle diplomacy,” order is restored. “She did it – a cease-fire!” the narrator proclaims.
So begins a campaign video released by the Democratic National Convention this week. Titled “67” (as in Hillary Clinton, the 67th U.S. secretary of state), the video begins with images of the eight days of fighting between Israel and Hamas in November 2012, known in Israel as Operation Pillar of Defense. Aimed at highlighting Clinton’s accomplishments as secretary of state, it plays more like a trailer for a superhero movie than a regular campaign ad.
Now that Clinton is officially the Democratic nominee, the bitter contest between her and Donald Trump is entering a new phase – one in which Israel (along with the rest of the Middle East) is bound to take a prominent place.
The Republican National Convention two weeks ago included some embarrassing pro-Israel displays. The DNC, too, was not without its displays of shameless pandering to the pro-Israel crowd (hello there, Bill Clinton’s Hebrew “Hillary” pin! and Hillary’s nod to Israel in her speech Thursday night, saying, “We must keep supporting Israel’s security”).
With an inexperienced, temperamental tangerine with dubious Russian inclinations as her rival, it’s crucial for the Clinton campaign to present their candidate as an accomplished, “change-making” leader with sound judgment. Lauding her record on the Middle East is a big part of that.
The problem is that Secretary of State Clinton’s record on the Middle East, especially Israel-Palestine, is nothing to brag about.
To be clear, Clinton’s term as secretary of state was far from the disaster Republicans try to portray it as. But it was also very far from the “change-maker” image that some supporters and surrogates, like Bill Clinton, try to ascribe to her. To understand why, it’s enough to look at her record on Israel-Palestine.
Along with her firm support for sanctions against Iran, the 2012 cease-fire is constantly mentioned as one of the two major accomplishments of her time in the State Department. In his DNC speech, Bill Clinton also highlighted that Israel-Hamas cease-fire: “She flew all night long from Cambodia to the Middle East to get a cease-fire that would avoid a full-out shooting war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, to protect the peace of the region,” said Bill.
While it’s certainly not nothing – the cease-fire likely prevented Pillar of Defense from escalating into a bloodbath like Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, or Operation Protective Edge in 2014 – this achievement would have looked far more impressive had another war not broken out between Israel and Hamas two years later.
As it is, it was essentially a temporary fix that did little to solve long-term problems or promote a meaningful resolution to the conflict. That’s not Clinton’s fault, of course, but it does put the significance of her major accomplishment into perspective.
In part, the 2012 cease-fire encapsulates Clinton’s record on Israel-Palestine: useful at times, but definitely not game-changing or very significant, or even incredibly memorable.
Clinton did attempt to revive the Israel-Palestinian peace process, which didn’t amount to much (a rite of passage of sorts for secretaries of state), as part of the Obama administration’s early efforts to restart negotiations. The talks pretty much fell apart within weeks. Again, by no fault of Clinton herself – and the policy she was implementing was Obama’s, not hers – but hardly any great achievement.
On the issue of settlement expansion, Clinton again failed to leave a mark. At times, she offered modest protestations – such as a phone call in which she rebuked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Israel’s government announced it would build 1,6000 settler homes in East Jerusalem, despite U.S. objections and during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden. In a rare move, she also criticized Israel publicly. Usually, though, she abided by the general rule of U.S. passivity in the face of a radicalizing Israel. (Since she left the Department of State, she also renounced the Obama administration’s demand for a settlement freeze, calling it a “tactical mistake”).
Overall, when it comes to the issue of Israel-Palestine, Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state was markedly different than the campaign ads would have you believe: it wasn’t remarkably bad; it wasn’t remarkably good, either. Like many diplomats before and after her, Clinton failed to make a dent in the sea of despair and apathy that envelops Israelis and Palestinians. When she left in 2013, Israel and Palestine were worse off, more deeply entrenched and no closer to fruitful negotiations than they were when she entered office. She did better than some, to be sure, but she fell well short of “change-making.”
And, honestly, she didn’t seem to try all that much either. As secretary of state, Clinton didn’t put much time or effort into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I suspect her presidential campaign overstates the level of her accomplishments on the Israel front because, when you consider that the Middle East essentially blew up on her watch, not to mention the grave errors and controversial decisions she made in Libya and Syria, the cease-fire she brokered between Israel and Hamas seems like a rare success.
None of this means Clinton won’t be a “change-making” president if she is indeed elected. She just might be. Then again, the one-sided statements she has made since she left the Department of State, along with her refusal to criticize Israel and her complete embrace of right-wing talking points in order to appease pro-Israel Jewish donors and her well-established hawkishness (not to mention the terribly regressive Democratic platform) suggest otherwise.
Nothing Clinton has said or done in recent years regarding Israel and Palestine indicates that she can, or even wants to, move the needle. Though she vowed in her speech Thursday night to protect Israel’s security, she said nothing about peace.
So far, it seems that looking like someone who’s moving the needle is more than enough.