Clinton At State: Will Senator Step Away From Israel?

As one former Clinton aide put it, “There is no point of accruing all this capital unless you are going to spend it.”

Such a path would certainly disappoint the mishpocheh back home, but to the extent that Mrs. Clinton is thinking of legacy or a political life after State, there is certainly more mileage in appearing with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a handshake photo op than in blunting the anticipated criticisms of Assemblyman Dov Hikind. 

“Out of necessity,” said the former Clinton aide, “she is going to have to moderate her persona on these issues.”

At the Sunday morning rally, as chips of thawing ice floated down from the tops of skyscrapers lining 42nd street, Senator Chuck Schumer led a litany of New York politicians onto a small stage between Second and Third avenues to express steadfast, unbending and nonnegotiable support for Israel. Like the other politicians present, Mr. Schumer wore a red baseball cap as a reminder of the red alerts that warn Israelis of incoming Hamas rockets.

A long, narrow crowd waved printed signs that read “Jews Cherish Life and Abhor War” and “Hamas Causes and Exploits Civilian Deaths. Blame Hamas.” (Some handwritten signs like “Kick Hamas’ Ass” bobbed in the mix.) 

“What country would be asked not to defend itself?” Mr. Schumer thundered, to loud applause. 

That used to be the sort of thing Mrs. Clinton would say. She worked intensely during her time in New York to overcome Israel-voter skepticism—or at least the constant, insistent, reports of said skepticism—generated by her advocacy as first lady for a two-state solution and a kiss she planted on the cheek of Suha Arafat.

Before long, though, she came to be regarded as being as reliable a voice for Israel’s interests as, say, Chuck Schumer.

“Israelis know her,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow and Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution. “They’ve known her for a long time and they trust her.”

When Israel came under attack in 2001, she joined a group of senators applauding the Bush administration’s veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution to send a United Nations observer force into Israeli-occupied territory. She and her colleagues raised the prospect of designating Yasser Arafat’s special forces as terrorist organizations, of refusing to meet with Mr. Arafat and of weighing financial sanctions.

When international critics in 2004 excoriated Israel for erecting a wall that they called inhumane, Mrs. Clinton released a statement saying, “Israel’s fence is a legitimate response to an onslaught of terrorist attacks against Israelis.”

In September 2007, she voted to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, partially on the grounds that they supported Israel’s enemies. “The Revolutionary Guards are deeply involved in Iran’s nuclear program and have substantial links with Hezbollah,” she said.

Contrast that with the more than two weeks since the present conflict erupted in Gaza on December 27. Mrs. Clinton, by order of the incoming Obama administration, has said nothing.

So will she still be “right” on Israel?

Mr. Schumer—one of the first and most important surrogates to vouch for her with Israel-minded New York voters—thinks so.

As a band played amplified Jewish folk songs on the stage behind him, New York’s senior senator argued to The Observer that Mrs. Clinton’s support of Israel was “in her bones” and said that she understood as well as anyone that there could be no peace in the Middle East with Hamas. When asked if Mrs. Clinton could maintain an unreserved support of Israel as secretary of state, Mr. Schumer said, “It’s a different job,” and added, “There can be different tactics but the goal is the same. Separate the Palestinian people from Hamas.”     

A few minutes later, Representative Gary Ackerman made his way across a small crowd of rally organizers to say hello to a gaggle of officials gathering by the side of the stage.

“She will have a positive influence on the next president, who is already pro-Israel,” he said. Asked whether it was appropriate for Mrs. Clinton to maintain her unreservedly hawkish posture on Israel as secretary of state, Mr. Ackerman shrugged. “Brokers have opinions,” he said. “They have influence.” 

Some other New York leaders allowed that Mrs. Clinton would have to change her presentation, if not her positions.

“There could be some difference in nuance,” said Representative Pete King, a Clinton-friendly Republican and strong supporter of Israel who has expressed interest in running for U.S. Senate. “If they feel that the Palestinians are serious about making progress, then they might lean on Israel. But they’re not Jimmy Carter or [Carter’s national security adviser] Zbigniew Brzezinski.”