As Israel and Hezbollah waged war in Lebanon in 2006, Hillary Clinton took center stage among New York’s politicians at a pro-Israel rally and unequivocally exclaimed, “We will stand with Israel because Israel is standing up for American values as well as Israeli ones.”
A very similar scene took place on the morning of Jan. 11, two days before the beginning of Senate hearings to confirm Mrs. Clinton as Barack Obama’s secretary of state. With Israel now at war with Hamas in Gaza, New York’s leaders once again lined up at a rally near the United Nations to voice their full-throated support for the Jewish state. But this time, Mrs. Clinton was nowhere to be found.
The era of Hillary Clinton, New York senator and Israel hawk, has run its course.
“It was really tough for Hillary to just stop on a dime while she is still the Senator from New York, especially on this issue,” said one source close to Mrs. Clinton. “Awkward to say the least.”
“The constituent-service part of her life is over,” said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst at The Cook Political Report. “She is taking a job that requires her not be a cheerleader for any side of any issue, and this is going to be especially obvious on Israel, where she has been very vocal in the past. Appearing at a rally would be viewed as fairly controversial. Israel’s enemies would be within their rights to perhaps even complain about it.”
The transition from cheerleader to statesman has already happened. This is in evidence not only in her absence from the pro-Israel rally, but in her overall restraint in talking about the Israeli invasion — a silence maintained at the explicit request of Obama senior staff, according to one member of the transition team.
In her opening remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during her confirmation hearing on Jan. 13, she professed to understand Israel’s desire to defend itself, but added that the conflict reminded us of the “tragic humanitarian costs of conflict in the Middle East.”
In a written response obtained by the Observer to a question from Republican Dick Luger about how she planned to help secure a durable peace in the Middle East, Mrs. Clinton said: “President-Elect Obama has spoken about his deep concern for the loss of civilian life in Gaza and Israel, and we all agree that it is very important that a durable ceasefire be achieved.” She added, “ceasefire should be accompanied by a serious effort to address the immediate humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people and a longer term reconstruction and development effort.”
Before those remarks and written answers, Mrs. Clinton had been entirely silent on the subject on the conflict in Gaza. According to one member of the Obama transition team, Mrs. Clinton was “explicitly told not to comment in any way on Gaza during her confirmation period, and so she’s doing what was asked of her.”
(Brooke Anderson, a spokesperson for the Obama transition team, declined to respond directly as to whether to Mrs. Clinton received specific instructions not to speak about Gaza, and instead pointed to remarks by Mr. Obama in which he said, among other things, “On January 20th you will be hearing directly from me and my opinions on this issue.”)
This muting process, it should be said, is inevitable. Each step Mrs. Clinton takes toward the office of secretary of state is one further away from New York and her informal role—intrinsic to New York senators, Republicans and Democrats alike—as irreducible defender of Israel.
New York’s senator is expected to be the Israel guy in Washington. It has always been so. The secretary of state, by definition, is a diplomat and a broker.
“Maybe her rhetoric will be a little more muted as a secretary of state,” said Representative Jerry Nadler. “You have to have someone who is a strong supporter of Israel but who is also going to urge reasonable settlements.”
While some leaders of New York’s Jewish community talk of Mrs. Clinton being the kosher stamp on the Obama administration, particularly in the area of foreign policy, some experts and former aides see in Mrs. Clinton’s rock-solid Israel credentials an instrument with which the Obama administration could reshape the prevailing Israel policy and reinvigorate a peace process. Some are even anticipating a Hillary Goes to China moment in the Middle East.
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.”
In the event that Mrs. Clinton did push for concessions that went too far for her former New York base, some of the members of Congress said they would let her know.
“I’ve never been ashamed of voicing my opinion either quietly or legislatively,” said Representative Steve Israel, who is openly campaigning to replace Mrs. Clinton in the Senate.
Representative Eliot Engel, a particularly vocal and enthusiastic Hillary supporter, even in New York, also seemed to be reckoning with the reality of a different relationship.
“There may be a little bit of slack given to her, but there is a very fine line there,” said Mr. Engel. “If people feel that pressure is being put on Israel, then it doesn’t matter if it is Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Jimmy Carter. If Hillary is doing it, it’s not going to make me less unhappy.”
During Mrs. Clintons high-profile confirmation hearing on the morning of Jan. 13, she offered plenty of support for Israel, saying that the refusal to negotiate with Hamas until it recognized Israel and renounced violence was “just, for me, an absolute.” But in her opening statement, she also suggested that the Obama administration would adopt a more comprehensive view of the situation.
“As intractable as the Middle East’s problems may seem—and many presidents, including my husband, have spent years trying to help work out a resolution—we cannot give up on peace,” she said. “The president-elect and I understand and are deeply sympathetic to Israel’s desire to defend itself under the current conditions, and to be free of shelling by Hamas rockets.
“However,” Mrs. Clinton said, “we have also been reminded of the tragic humanitarian costs of conflict in the Middle East, and pained by the suffering of Palestinian and Israeli civilians. This must only increase our determination to seek a just and lasting peace agreement that brings real security to Israel; normal and positive relations with its neighbors; and independence, economic progress and security to the Palestinians in their own state.”
As Mrs. Clinton left the chamber for a lunch break, several protesters began yelling at her. They demanded to hear more from her about the Palestinians who had died in Gaza.