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How top Clinton confidants talk about Israel when no one's listening

Hillary Clinton checks her Blackberry in 2009.
Hillary Clinton checks her Blackberry in 2009.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Reporters are mostly combing through the just-released Hillary Clinton emails looking for scandal, but the correspondence also reveals how Clinton and the people in her orbit think and talk about important policy issues when they believe no one's listening.

That includes, in this case, two emails from 2010 that offer a fascinating glimpse into how two Clinton-world foreign policy people, Martin Indyk and Sandy Berger (they are also former senior officials in the Bill Clinton administration), thought about Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Neither was in government at the time, but their notes both reached Clinton as she was secretary of state. And it seems at least highly plausible that they would return to senior roles in a future Clinton administration.

The picture these emails paint of Israel and Netanyahu is scathing and bleak: They portray the Israeli leader as bumbling, irrational, intransigent, often acting in bad faith, and as one of the biggest hurdles to Israel-Palestine peace. But their proposed solutions are not for the US to punish or circumvent Netanyahu, but rather to coddle and reward him so as to nudge him toward doing the right thing.

This approach, it seems to me, is either cynical and necessary — Netanyahu holds the keys to Israeli policy, and Israel is by far the dominant actor in the Israel-Palestine conflict, so maybe America's only choice is to hold its nose and appease him — or it is hopelessly naive, mistaking Netanyahu's absolute opposition to peace as a mere negotiating position, handing him one concession after another, though he has no intention of reciprocating.

The Martin Indyk email: "Put your arm around Bibi"

Netanyahu speaks to the Knesset in 2013 (Uriel Sinai/Getty)

Netanyahu speaks to the Knesset in 2013. (Uriel Sinai/Getty)

To my mind, the most interesting of these emails I've seen so far is this one from Martin Indyk, who served in top Middle East policy positions throughout the Bill Clinton presidency, including as US ambassador to Israel and later as a special envoy on Israel-Palestine under President Obama.

Indyk, in the September 2010 email, offers a scathing and at times psychoanalytical assessment of Netanyahu and how to deal with the Israeli leader's "psychology" in order to reach an Israel-Palestine peace deal. The email was sent to George Mitchell and Jeffrey Feltman, two top Middle East officials at the State Department, and eventually forwarded to Clinton herself.

The "self-defeating" Netanyahu, according to Indyk, believes "that he is a great negotiator, and that he is operating in the Middle East bazaar, he inflates his requirements well beyond anything reasonable in the belief that this is the best way to secure the highest price." As a result, Indyk wrote, the Israel-Palestine peace process ends up getting dominated by Netanyahu's ego and insecurity issues:

The process of bringing him down to a reasonable price uses up a lot of energy, uses up a lot of goodwill, humiliates his Palestinian negotiating partner, and raises doubts about his seriousness. In the end, under great pressure from all quarters, he will make the final concession, but only after wasting a lot of time, making everybody furious with him, and thereby securing no credit either with his supporters or negotiating partners. At heart, he seems to lack a generosity of spirit. This combines with his legendary fear of being seen as a "freier" (sucker) in front of his people to create a real problem in the negotiations, especially because he holds most of the cards.

One does not get the sense that Indyk thinks very highly of the Israeli leader.

But I thought the most interesting section was his assessment of Netanyahu's and Israel's future if they failed to take the necessary steps toward peace:

The reason for dwelling on Bibi's psychology rather than his politics is that the latter all point in the direction of making a deal: the Israeli public is ready to get on with it; if Israel doesn't make a serious move, it will further delegitimize its standing internationally (something Bibi [Netanyahu] is deeply concerned about); Bibi needs President Obama in his corner to deal with the threat from Iran and to avoid punishment by the voters for mishandling relations with the U.S.; and if he doesn't make the deal with [Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas] now, he will have helped to advance the future he is most concerned about — a Hamas takeover of the Palestinian leadership.

The conclusion you come away with from this section and the email generally is that Indyk believed Netanyahu was the real obstacle to peace and that his opposition was rooted neither in rationality nor even in cynical politics, but in irrational pathologies and personality faults.

If that strikes you as a position that is too harshly critical of Israel and Netanyahu, then it may interest you to learn that Indyk's four-point plan for addressing the problem is not to punish what he sees as Netanyahu's intransigence, but rather to reward it by coddling the Israeli leader. "Put your arm around Bibi," Indyk writes, adding that generous US concessions to Israel "should buy you credibility with him."

The Sandy Berger email: "a serious questionmark hovers over Bibi's politics, his head and his heart"

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2014 (Thaer Ghanaim/PPO/Getty Images)

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2014. (Thaer Ghanaim/PPO/Getty Images)

Sandy Berger, who was Bill Clinton's national security adviser and a foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton's campaign, sent in August 2010 what appears to be a detailed policy memo on Israel-Palestine peace talks.

Like Indyk, Berger seems to see Netanyahu — not Israel, but Netanyahu specifically — as the primary challenge for peace, and spends most of his memo discussing ways to bring him around.

"I am persuaded the most important factor is and is likely to remain what Netanyahu is prepared to do," Berger writes.

He acknowledges that the Palestinians can be difficult as well, but says that at least they "have a relatively clear sense of their positions on the core issues." Netanyahu, though, is someone who "either does not know himself or is not prepared to share [his positions on core issues] and who, until now, has neither felt the urgency to reach a deal nor the discomfort of the status quo."

And yet Berger concludes that Clinton should solve this problem by assuring Netanyahu that the US will help him meet Israeli security needs as well as his own personal political needs. The picture he paints is one in which Netanyahu is in charge and the US role is to provide him with concessions, personal assurances, and political support until the Israeli leader feels like making peace:

Rather, [a peace deal] will happen only if [Netanyahu] feels that (1) it is under the leadership of a U.S. administration he genuinely trusts; (2) he is convinced that the combination of the agreement and U.S. assurances meets his core needs in terms of Israeli security and international recognition of its Jewish character; and (3) he feels that, again with U.S. help, he can sell it to his people and survive -- or even thrive -- politically.

Like Indyk, Berger does not seem very happy about this situation, but accepts it as a hard truth that bringing around Netanyahu is the only way to accomplish anything.

Much of his advice focuses on how best to accomplish this politically. He discourages President Obama from getting involved, for example, because he is "not trusted by Bibi" and because "[d]omestically, he faces a reservoir of skepticism on this issue which reflects many factors, including inexcusable prejudice, but which could obstruct his effectiveness both as an interlocutor and as a salesman."

In the course of a point about how and when Clinton should get involved in peace talks personally, Berger says something interesting about the risk that the entire thing could fall apart:

Failure is a real possibility. Palestinians are in disarray. The Arab world is profoundly divided, with forthcoming successions in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that will weaken two of the states upon which we most rely. And a serious questionmark hovers over Bibi's politics, his head and his heart.

All of this strikes me as correct (although Egypt, rather than getting a clean succession, got a revolution, an incompetent Islamist government, and then a military coup), but it's interesting to see such a candid, behind-closed-doors assessment of America's allies in the Middle East. And it's all bad news.

It's no secret that American leaders and diplomats tend to put a happy spin on US relationships when speaking publicly, particularly with regards to problem allies like Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

But it is still striking to see it laid out quite so plainly and to see the acknowledgment that Netanyahu's "head and his heart" might not really be sold on peace, perhaps to a degree that is fatal for peace. That's something that Mideast analysts have been warning for years. It turns out that at least this couple of the top Democratic foreign policy thinkers have heard them. But their proposed solutions, at least as of 2010, were that America should just bend to Netanyahu further.

It's tough to say how Clinton-aligned foreign policy professionals like Indyk and Berger would change their advice now, five years later — or, maybe more to the point, how they would change their advice for 2017 under a possible Clinton presidency. But it seems safe to assume they would not have become any happier with, or less skeptical about, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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