Why hasn’t the Obama Administration been able to reach a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians? Reading Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, Hard Choices, you’d think the blame should be apportioned about equally between the two parties, with a little falling on the administration as well. It’s nice to be evenhanded—to downplay differences, to be charitable and high-minded, to preserve future options. But it also can be wrong, especially when doing so implicitly casts opprobrium on someone undeserving of blame.
The sections of Clinton’s book that deal with the peace process are full of such blame, and it is not always so implicit.
She begins these sections with an anecdote from September 2010, placing her at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s residence with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for their first meeting, weeks before a 10-month settlement freeze will expire. “It had taken nearly two years of difficult diplomacy to get these two leaders to agree to negotiate face-to-face,” she remarks.
The reader will take from this passage that both Netanyahu and Abbas had refused to meet in person, yet this could not be further from the truth—Netanyahu had been calling for direct negotiations the entire time, and before global audiences no less.
In his landmark June 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University—it was the first time he formally endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state—Netanyahu declared: “I turn to you, our Palestinian neighbors, led by the Palestinian Authority, and I say: Let’s begin negotiations immediately without preconditions.”
In his 2010 speech to the AIPAC Policy Conference, Netanyahu said: “My government has consistently shown its commitment to peace in both word and deed. From day one, we called on the Palestinian Authority to begin peace negotiations without delay. I make that same call today. President Abbas, come and negotiate peace.”
In his speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in May 2011, he said: “Now again I want to make this clear. Israel is prepared to sit down today and negotiate peace with the Palestinian Authority. … So I say to President Abbas: Tear up your pact with Hamas! Sit down and negotiate!”
Clinton was Secretary of State throughout the period in which Netanyahu made these declarations, and she surely knows that he had called for Abbas to negotiate on numerous occasions. No matter: Evenhandedness requires apportioning blame equally, and so Israel is accused of doing something—refusing to negotiate—of which it is entirely innocent.
A few pages later, attempting to further build her case of Israeli reluctance to participate in negotiations, she claims that “Settlers were the political base of Netanyahu’s main coalition partner, the Yisrael Beiteinu Party…[party head Avigdor] Lieberman viewed negotiating concessions as a sign of weakness and had a long history of opposition to the Oslo peace process.”
This is also false. Yisrael Beiteinu is not a settler party—it is largely comprised of secular Russian immigrants, including Lieberman himself. Its platform explicitly endorses the creation of a Palestinian state, including land swaps from Arab areas of Israel to a Palestinian state in exchange for Israel retaining Jewish communities in the West Bank. Yisrael Beiteinu’s party platform is explicit: “Israel is our home; Palestine is theirs.”
Later, Clinton says that after Abbas left the 2010 meeting in the prime minister’s residence, she conveyed to Netanyahu that “Surely he didn’t want to be responsible for halting these talks now that they were under way. … Could he agree to a brief extension of the [settlement] moratorium to allow us to press ahead and see what could be achieved?” Netanyahu had imposed the settlement freeze after a brutal campaign of public criticism by Clinton and the Obama Administration—explicitly on the grounds that it was needed in order to convince the Palestinians to talk.
Yet after it was imposed, Abbas still refused to talk, and instead of fixing her ire on him, it was once again Netanyahu who was facing demands. “Over the following weeks we launched a full-court press to persuade Bibi to reconsider extending the freeze,” Clinton says. At no point does she consider launching a full-court press to persuade Abbas to talk after the freeze, and at no point did Clinton consider launching a full-court press to persuade Abbas to talk during the freeze. Yet still the dissolution of the talks, she insists, was owed to Netanyahu’s inflexibility. It was easy being the Palestinian president when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.
A few times in recounting all this Clinton allows that the administration was “exasperated” with the Palestinians and found Abbas “frustrating,” and she does acknowledge Israel’s traumatic experience of Palestinian terrorism. One doesn’t come away from her story feeling that her failures were all Israel’s fault—just that they were half Israel’s fault, perhaps a little more.
So, why does Clinton tell the tale this way? Leaving aside the question of her inner feelings about Israel and the Palestinians, it is likely a matter of political calculation. The division within the Democratic Party on Israel has grown in recent years, now split between progressives who side with the Palestinians and seek to downgrade the U.S.-Israel relationship, and more mainstream liberals who are either ambivalent or pro-Israel. If you’re a Democrat with national political ambitions, the issue puts you in a bind as you seek to maintain centrist credibility while not alienating the leftist base for whom hostility to Israel has become an important emotion.
This is Clinton’s predicament on Israel, and she likely reasons that the best way to handle it is to engage in the kind of calculated evenhandedness that we see in her memoir. Given the political stakes it is probably too much to ask that she stand up to the anti-Israel progressives in her party. Yet her unwillingness to do so represents one more retreat by the Democratic Party from its traditional support for Israel.
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