Friday, January 2, 2009

Clinton, Familiar With Pitfalls of Mideast Politics, May Face Early Test in Gaza

May? The crisis is awaiting, and will not be solved before she gets into office in two and a half weeks.

Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times - Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2005. After awkward episodes as first lady, she proved to be Israel’s friend as senator.

Mrs. Clinton brings several strengths, according to current and former aides and Middle East experts, including her knowledge of the region and experience in navigating it, as well as lingering good will among Arabs and Israelis won by her husband, Bill Clinton, for his efforts to broker a peace deal in the waning days of his presidency. But Mrs. Clinton will have to reassure the Palestinians that she, too, can be a broker, working with Egypt and other Arab neighbors, and putting pressure on the Israeli government, when needed. “She’s going to have to demonstrate her independence from Israel,” said Aaron David Miller, a public policy analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Our interests are inevitably going to diverge from their interests. We cannot be an ‘amen corner’ for them.”

That might be her toughest task, pressuring Israel. Brokering negotiations will be very tough, but the US is the only party that can do so. She brings good will from being a Clinton, and from being Obama's Secretary of State. But to push Israel? There will be a lot of pushback from Israel, the Israeli lobby, Israel's US supporters in both government and lobbies.

In a speech to an Israeli lobbying group shortly after she lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, Mrs. Clinton said the next president should shun direct negotiations with Hamas because it was a terrorist group, equipped by Iran and bent on destroying Israel. Earlier, Mrs. Clinton declared that the United States could “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons — a far more strident tone than that of her potential new boss, President-elect Obama.

In the middle of the campaign season things are said that are not the things that are said by Secretaries of State.

Most experts believe that Mrs. Clinton’s support of Israel is heartfelt, even if it is also smart politics in New York.


But when she was first lady, Mrs. Clinton made waves on two occasions for seeming to tilt toward Palestinian interests. In 1998, she told a gathering of Israeli and Arab teenagers that creating a state of Palestine was “very important for the broader goal of peace in the Middle East.” The White House disavowed her comments, saying they did not reflect the administration’s policy. Today, the two-state solution is a central part of the American blueprint for a peace deal.

How times change. Her comments were a bit ahead of the time when they became acceptable; today that is accepted policy.

More trouble loomed in November 1999, when Mrs. Clinton, by then a Senate hopeful, visited the West Bank town of Ramallah. At a ceremony with Palestinian health officials, the first lady did not react when Suha Arafat accused Israeli forces of using “toxic gases” against Palestinians, causing cancer in women and children. At the end of the ceremony, Mrs. Clinton gave Mrs. Arafat a polite kiss — a gesture that angered Jewish groups and earned the first lady critical newspaper editorials in New York.

She overcame that storm, and is now considered a strong friend of Israel. And in an ironic twist, that statement might now work in her favor.

In one way, Mrs. Clinton’s baggage may carry a silver lining. Some Palestinians point out that she was ahead of the curve, as an American public figure, in calling for a Palestinian state.

She is a very complex person, in many different ways.

Her marriage to former President Clinton also gives her a valuable calling card. Though his efforts to forge a peace deal fell apart, Middle East experts say that people on both sides credit him for trying longer and harder than other presidents. “People don’t just perceive her as a senator from New York who was very close to Israel,” said Ziad J. Asali, the president of the American Task Force on Palestine, an Arab-American advocacy group that favors a Palestinian state. “They perceive her as a Clinton.”

And Clinton has respect in the Middle East. There is no doubt that that played a significant role in her selection as Obama's Secretary of State.

The challenge for Mrs. Clinton, experts said, will be reaffirming her support for Israel while establishing strong relations with Egypt, an undertaking many believe will be critical to brokering a durable cease-fire in Gaza. “She has to quickly restore the relationship with Egypt,” said Mr. Miller, a former State Department veteran of numerous Middle East peace negotiations. “In doing so, she’s going to have to bear the brunt of being accused of indirect negotiations with Hamas.”

I do really wonder if Egypt's importance is not overestimated, at times. And the word restore jumps out at me; why restore?

Given the pace and fluidity of events in the Middle East, some experts say that the Gaza crisis may end up as a footnote in Mrs. Clinton’s diplomatic tenure, even if it now looms as a huge early test. “She may have to deal with a rough episode coming in, but it doesn’t have to define her,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You need a smart person who understands the complexity of the situation, and she is that.”

It will be interesting, at the least.

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