Speaking today at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest and most influential organization in the so-called Israel lobby, likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton drew a sharp contrast between her own position on the American-Israeli relationship and that of another politician whose more realist approach had won him few fans in the room: President Barack Obama.
“One of the first things I’ll do in office is invite the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House,” Clinton said, to applause. This is not the first time Clinton has promised to extend this invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu almost as soon as she takes office.
This sounds harmless enough, but the audience would have understood this to be an endorsement of the following contentions: that Barack Obama’s frosty relationship with Netanyahu is primarily the president’s fault, that a more accommodating Democratic president would have a more constructive and cooperative relationship with Netanyahu, and even that a more cooperative and cordial relationship with Netanyahu would be good for both countries.
All of those contentions are dubious.
Thousands of explanatory words have been published on the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, but it’s easy enough to explain: Netanyahu does not like, trust, or respect Barack Obama, and would rather work with a Republican president.
Benjamin Netanyahu is a conservative, who leads a conservative political party that is allied with the far right. In 2012, Netanyahu blatantly worked to help elect Mitt Romney, and he has continued to work with American Republicans to try to embarrass President Obama. (These efforts have mostly been fruitless in the United States, because the American Republican Party is inept and unpopular, but they have likely helped Netanyahu with his domestic base of right-wingers who hate Barack Obama.)
Far more important than the silly questions of whether or not Obama and Netanyahu are snubbing each other or attempting to damage each other politically is the matter of the actual actions and policies of Netanyahu and his government. It’s also been apparent for some time that Netanyahu has no interest in negotiating an end of the occupation of Palestinian land, has no intention to do anything to advance a just two-state solution, and would rather have seen us bomb Iran than negotiate a nuclear deal with them.
In response to all of that, the Obama administration has been more openly critical of the Israeli government, and more willing to express its annoyance with their decisions, than has been the norm in mainstream American politics over the last few decades.
It should be noted, for the record, that the Obama administration has not actually done anything substantive to push back against Israel, unless you count signing a deal with Iran rather than going to war with them. At the moment the administration is negotiating with Congress and Netanyahu’s government over whether we shall give them $40 billion in military support or merely $34 billion.
But even criticisms and reprimands, delivered without threats of serious consequences, are too much for many in Washington, including, perhaps, Hillary Clinton: Clinton has said that taking a hardline stance on Israel’s construction of illegal settlements in occupied territory, as the Obama administration tried to do early in his first term, “didn’t work.” (It’s hard to imagine what a more accommodating approach would have accomplished.)
Clinton promising a return to a bipartisan and seemingly unconditional embrace of the political leadership of Israel is disheartening to many—especially many liberals, including plenty of Jewish liberals—who’d hoped to see America challenge Israel’s intransigent, increasingly right-wing leadership, rather than refuse to admit the existence of daylight between America’s aims and interests and those of the Netanyahu government.
This may be an issue on which Hillary Clinton is acting not, as her critics claim she often does, on political expediency, but rather on personally held principle. Promising a friendlier relationship with Netanyahu, and strongly signaling that she’d go “easier” on the Israeli government in general, are not exactly positions a Democrat would take to fire up the base—a small and declining minority of Democrats have a “favorable” impression of Netanyahu. Even the general electorate is largely indifferent, with a third of all voters saying candidates’ positions on Israel have “some” impact on their vote, and 40 percent saying “just a little” or “not at all.”
Cynics may point out that there is a financial benefit to loudly embracing the Israeli government; one of Clinton’s biggest supporters is Haim Saban, the hawkish Israeli American mega-donor. But there are plenty of ways to privately assure the Sabans of the world of your intentions without loudly and publicly broadcasting them.
It may simply be the case that Hillary Clinton genuinely believes in the wisdom of establishing a better working relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised his supporters that there would be no Palestinian state as long as he remains in power, who campaigned for reelection with explicitly and blatantly racist rhetoric, and who would sell her out to her Republican opponents at the first opportunity.