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Hillary Clinton's AIPAC speech: hard-line pro-Israel rhetoric, status quo Obama policies

Hillary Clinton speaks at AIPAC.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

Hillary Clinton, in her speech today to AIPAC, made a seemingly big promise: "to take the US-Israel alliance to the next level."

But based on her speech, her plan seems largely to consist of maintaining the status quo — but it was wrapped in lots of rhetoric meant to signal sympathy to the concerns of Israel's right-wing leadership and of pro-Israel groups.

The irony is that Clinton's speech, in its rhetorical contours, sounded as or more in tune with Israeli right-wing concerns than even many speeches by conservative Republican candidates. She warned against college campus BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movements and "the growing effort to delegitimize Israel," and name-checked historic figures and recent incidents, such as a recent killing near Tel Aviv, that are touchstones of the right-leaning, pro-Israel conversation.

But whereas conservative Republican speeches on Israel tend to culminate in specific policy proposals meant to shift American policy — moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, for example, or suspending peace talks until the Palestinians meet some new demand — Clinton's actual policy plan is difficult to differentiate from the status quo under President Obama.

Clinton's speech is being covered as an attempt to win over American pro-Israel groups, which in recent years have typically supported Republicans but which might be skeptical about Donald Trump. And it is indeed that. But it's also a hint at how Clinton might approach Israel as president.

That approach, as demonstrated in her AIPAC speech, was best summed up by Clinton herself in 2014, in this line from her memoir about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

"I learned that Bibi would fight if he felt he was being cornered, but if you connected with him as a friend, there was a chance you could get something done together," she wrote.

This is an idea that her husband relied on in his own administration: that Israeli leaders, particularly right-wing Israeli leaders, would only take short-term risks for peace if they felt secure, and the best way to make them feel secure was to provide lots of American security guarantees and political support, backed up by a US president who signaled his or her personal commitment to Israel.

(This practice by Bill Clinton became the source of the idea that US presidents are required to have "a special feeling for Israel.")

You heard hints of this practice, for example, in Hillary Clinton's language in her AIPAC speech with regards to Iran. She used seemingly hard-line language (for example, asking "whether we will have the strength and commitment to confront the adversaries that threaten us — especially Iran") to advocate for basically the same policies, including maintaining the Iran nuclear deal, which AIPAC opposed.

You also heard this in her language on Israel-Palestine peace talks. She spent several long paragraphs angrily lamenting the sins of the Palestinians, including an applause line ordering Palestinian leaders to "stop inciting violence." And she gave heavy credence to right-wing Israeli lines, for example saying that "many Israelis doubt that a willing and capable partner for peace even exists."

But all of this rhetoric ultimately led her to articulate the status quo policy of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks toward a two-state solution, in which she also named Israeli settlements as a hurdle to peace.

There's some reason to believe that the Clinton team sees this hard-line pro-Israel rhetoric as a tool for securing Israeli cooperation on American policy initiatives, such as Israel-Palestine peace talks, that the Israelis might otherwise resist.

You can see this, for example, if you read some of the emails recently released from Clinton's time at the State Department. These include two emails from prominent advisers on Israel-Palestine: Martin Indyk and Sandy Berger. Both had served in her husband's administration (Indyk now holds a senior post at Brookings; Berger died in December) on Middle East policy issues.

In their emails to Clinton, offering their advice on Israel-Palestine talks, both Indyk and Berger described Israel's right-wing leadership as a primary obstacle to peace. But their proposed solutions were 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.

Indyk, in his email, describes Netanyahu as shortsighted and cowardly, yet tells Clinton, "Put your arm around Bibi," adding that generous US concessions to Israel "should buy you credibility with him."

Here's a striking section from Berger's email, which describes Netanyahu in scathingly critical terms yet argues that the US role should nonetheless provide him with concessions, personal assurances, and political support until the Israeli leader feels comfortable 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.

Reading these emails, Clinton's AIPAC speech starts to make more sense.

But if this is in fact her strategy — to reassure right-wing Israeli leaders that she understands them, and thus persuade them to more willingly hear American demands or even make concessions for peace — it is still an open question as to whether that strategy works.

Clinton's husband attempted that strategy while he was president, and he failed. President George W. Bush tried this strategy, signaling lots of support for Israel before making peace demands that were swatted away, and he failed. President Obama attempted variations of this strategy, and he also failed.

The "put your arm around Bibi" strategy has a 0-for-3 track record. I don't claim to have a magical better strategy hidden up my sleeve, but it's hard not to be skeptical as to whether the fourth time is the charm here.