Who knew that Hillary Clinton was the great kosherizer?
During a Dec. 8 visit by a delegation from the New York State Assembly to Israel—one of the few places on earth that wasn’t pulling for Barack Obama to win the presidential election—Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was asked what he thought of her nomination as secretary of state.
“He said that Hillary Clinton is a friend and a strong supporter of Israel,” said Michael Miller, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, who attended the 45-minute meeting. “Her support of Israel is as solid as there is on Capitol Hill.”
It’s hard to find a self-identified Jewish leader who’d dispute that notion at this point, which is saying something.
Mrs. Clinton’s first Senate race, New Yorkers may remember, was dominated for a long stretch by energetically delivered media stories about her feelings toward Israel, her (literal) embrace of Yasser Arafat’s wife at a public event and even a dubiously sourced allegation that she once, in a fit of rage, called someone a Jew bastard.
Yet for pro-Israel voters and officials, her actions over eight years since then as the junior senator from New York have transformed her into a talisman, providing reassurance that Israel’s interests will be provided for in an administration led by a president who received strong support from American Jews, yet whose calls for direct engagement with Iran still causes some concern in the Israel lobby.
“With regard to Israel, he hadn’t served in the Senate a long time, and there were people who were questioning,” said Representative Eliot Engel of the Bronx, a Democrat who was a prime sponsor of legislation to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “Not only the appointment of Senator Clinton, I think all of his appointments, are assuring to the Jewish-American community. But particularly the appointment of Hillary. I know her very well and I know that her commitment to Israel is unshakable and strong, and am I just delighted.”
It wasn’t always so. Early on in her New York sojourn, it was Mrs. Clinton who needed surrogate envoys to reassure Jewish groups that she had Israel’s interests at heart, as when Chuck Schumer felt compelled to assure his audience at a fund-raiser that “she will just look to me” when voting on “Jewish issues.”
And long before her calls to “totally obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel—before her speech to AIPAC in February 2007 in which she called Iran’s regime “pro-terrorist, anti-American, anti-Israeli,” and before she accumulated a long list of Israel-friendly legislation and statements on her Senate Web site (“Senator Clinton Joins with Palestinian Media Watch to Release New Report on Continuing Anti-Israel Bias in Palestinian Textbooks,”)—she was the candidate who kissed Suha Arafat in Ramallah.
“She has come a long a way in assuring people,” said Representative Gary Ackerman, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.
Mr. Ackerman said he never personally doubted Mrs. Clinton’s commitment to Israel, but that other, more skeptical Jewish leaders and voters had come around to his position during Mrs. Clinton’s time in New York.
“As my mother, may she rest in peace, would say, ‘Is this good for the Jews?’ And the answer is, not only that, it’s good for everyone,” he said.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an orthodox Likudnik from Brooklyn who in 1999 called Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy “disastrous,” now considers her Israel’s woman in the Obama administration.
He recalled that following the controversy in the West Bank—Mrs. Clinton had exchanged kisses with Mrs, Arafat after the Palestinian leader’s wife made a speech, in Arabic, accusing Israeli soldiers of gassing Palestinian children—and a vocally negative reception at a pro-Israel rally in Manhattan, Mrs. Clinton asked for a meeting, and they discussed Israel for two hours.
“I said to her, ‘Let me tell you why people were booing you,’” said Mr. Hikind.
He said he then argued for a “broader view” of Israel’s security situation than the “extreme left” one she had been advocating.
“She definitely picked up on that,” he said.
Mr. Hikind said that his constituents now felt more at ease with Mrs. Clinton than they did with Mr. Obama, reflected in the more than 70 percent of the vote that John McCain won in his largely Jewish district.
“There was a lot of concern that Barack Obama didn’t get that,” Mr. Hikind said. “Having Hillary there is definitely a big plus.”
Mr. Engel went so far as to pronounce himself heartened by the negative reaction he said Mrs. Clinton had received among Israel’s enemies.
“There was a simultaneous grumbling in the Arab capitals because they were afraid that she is too pro-Israel,” he said.
Asked if he was confident Mrs. Clinton would maintain that stance when no longer accountable to Jewish constituents in New York, he said, “There are things you say among people or when people say to you when you are among mishpocheh and you just know it. It’s just something you know.”
Or as Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, put it: “Look, if you are a senator from an agricultural state and then you go into a federal position, that doesn’t mean that you change your views on agriculture.”
Certainly, if the names of the Middle East advisers Mrs. Clinton has surrounded herself with are any indication, she will continue to position herself solidly in the pro-Israel mainstream of the Democratic foreign policy establishment.
The people she listens to on the topic include Clinton administration veterans like Richard Holbrooke, Martin Indyk and Lee Feinstein who was her national security coordinator during the presidential campaign. All of them blame the Palestinians for the breakdown of the peace talks and argue that the Palestinians need to provide a stronger interlocutor in order for the peace process to go forward. They view Israel as America’s best ally in the region and vigorously defend its right to use force to defend itself.
“Clinton’s appointment tells the pro-Israel community that they are at least going to have access. It’s a good sign,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant, who refuted the idea, popular among some foreign policy experts, that the time for a two-state solution was drawing to a close. “What do they expect us to do: walk into the sea? She understands that it’s ridiculous. That’s mostly the Jews being nervous. Tell them to calm down and eat a bagel.”
Still, some experts—particularly dovish ones—aren’t so sure that as secretary of state, she’d be locked into the posture she maintained, rigidly, for the past eight years as a senator.
“In New York, it’s Irish, Italians and Israel. When you are no longer senator of New York, the things that are going to pull you are going to be different,” said Steven Clemons, a fellow at the New America Foundation. “One of the most interesting questions is, what is Hillary Clinton’s makeover going to look like? Because Obama sure is different. I guarantee you [defense secretary] Bob Gates will look different under the Obama team than he did under Bush. For anybody to think that she is not going to become Hillary 3.0, I think, is making a serious mistake.”
Ori Nir, a spokesperson for Americans for Peace Now, said, “She is working for a president who is coming in with a very clear mandate and a very clear program. And she will have to implement that program together with a team that we believe is very popular on this issue, including General Jones.”
(General Jim Jones, Mr. Obama’s nominee for national security adviser, is widely seen in the foreign policy community as the member of the Obama foreign policy team most willing to push Israel to freeze settlements and make other compromises.)
The Obama camp, naturally, has been quick to dismiss any notion of differing views toward Israel among the key players on the team.
“She and Obama will be working hand-in-glove for foreign policy objectives in the Middle East and elsewhere,” said Mel Levine, a former congressman who advised Mr. Obama on Middle East issues during the campaign. “The combination of these two is something that the world will welcome.”
Martin Begun, a veteran of New York politics and the former president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, suggested that perhaps, after years of arguing, it was time to put the question of whether Hillary Clinton is good for the Jews to bed, for good.
“There are people who are always challenging where people come from,” he said. “If anyone in Israel is concerned about where she is and where she is coming from, I think they need a good drink.”