According to the relatively few people who got to see her in private settings during the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s enthusiasm for the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was an impressive thing to behold.
Yashar Hedayat, who organized a fund-raiser for her in 2007 at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, recalled that her response to a question about Israel and Palestine that was so long and detailed that his guests were “in awe.”
That sort of fluency should theoretically put Mrs. Clinton in a strong position as secretary of state, since her performance in helping to achieve stability in the Middle East will be the central challenge of her tenure in the Obama administration, and the foundation on which her legacy will be judged.
The problem is that she’s got nowhere to begin.
“Her options in terms of generating change and difference are going to be very limited,” said Steven Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “It’s a really big mess.”
While her much-celebrated appointment to State has raised expectations that she’ll be able to achieve progress where, say, Condoleezza Rice hasn’t, it’s hard to see how she can do much that’s different anytime soon. (The Israeli election returns on Feb. 10 did little to clear up the picture, giving an early, narrow edge to the centrist Kadima Party of Tzipi Livni, well short of what it would take for her to form a stable governing majority.)
In fact, the more immediate question is whether, by sheer force of her domestic and international stature, Mrs. Clinton can begin to affect a new outcome simply by being conspicuously involved.
“She is going to have to connect with them ultimately if she wants to be a consequential secretary of state,” said Aaron David Miller, who has advised several U.S. secretaries of state on Middle East policy. “What secretaries of states do is take crises and make them better.”
According to Uri Savir, Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords and the president of the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv, Mrs. Clinton needs to get involved “immediately, after the Israeli election.”
Certainly, Mrs. Clinton won’t be held back from engaging in the Middle East from any lack of enthusiasm about the subject.
She spoke about it frequently, sometimes controversially, as first lady, as the junior senator from New York and, of course, as a candidate for president.
But it will likely be a while before Mrs. Clinton gets going on the topic in public.
“The question is always when is it time to bring in the heavy guns in a negotiation. We are not yet in a place where we have a negotiation ongoing,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Middle East Democracy and Development Project at the Brookings Institution. “It would be very premature that the secretary needs to weigh in.”
There is, in other words, a lot of diplomatic spadework to undertake before talks are ramped up to the level of direct engagement by Mrs. Clinton. For now, that will be left to George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s special envoy to the Middle East.
On Feb. 3, Mr. Mitchell reported back to Mrs. Clinton after his trip. At a joint press conference, he said that many of the key players wanted her to visit.
“I warned her this morning that she’s going to have to start pretty soon,” Mr. Mitchell said. “Because all of the leaders with whom I’ve met had already spoken with the secretary and are anxious for her to come to the region, which, at an appropriate time and consistent with the worldwide demands on her schedule, I hope she will be able to make.”
The question is, then what?
“It’s kind of like Luke Skywalker blowing up that big planet,” said Mr. Clemons. “You’ve got to get that little hit, because the constraints and distractions are so huge, and so I think the chances are low of success, but there is a chance.”
Even then, experts believe that the approach toward peacemaking is going to have to more modest and incremental—the opposite, essentially, of what we saw from the Clinton administration.
“This attitude of ‘we have to get everyone to the table and get the parties to agree’ just isn’t going to happen that way,” said Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “You can’t use Fatah; Fatah’s corrupt. And you can’t use Hamas; they want to destroy you. So you have to find another way.”