Gillibrand Got It Right on U.S. Policy Toward Israel

Kirsten Gillibrand, it turns out, was exactly right about the Obama administration's willingness to apply pressure on a hawkish Israeli government.

Back in February, soon after Gillibrand's appointment to replace Hillary Clinton–and right around the time the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu was forming a new government in Israel–she went further than most Democrats in the Senate, and certainly further than most Democratic elected officials in New York, in talking about her willingness, and the willingness of the American government, to assert its diplomatic prerogatives.

She said that she would "offer what I think is the best policy, regardless of what Netanyahu says is what he wants to do," and expressed confidence that "the president will use all the means and all the tools in his toolbox to reach a solution for peace in the Middle East."

She continued, "And if he offers positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement, that will be a strategic decision for the administration and our secretary of state."

Gillibrand and her office haven't exactly embraced these comments since then–she has yet to say anything similar and today, her spokesman Matt Canter said, simply, "Senator Gillibrand's chief focus is Israel's security."

But she was right: the Obama administration does seem to be asserting itself in an extraordinary way.

Speaking to reporters in Washington yesterday after a meeting with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Obama called again on Israel to halt the expansion of its settlements, saying "We can't continue with the drift and the increased fear on both sides, the sense of hopelessness that we've seen for too many years now. We need to get this thing back on track."

The day before, Hillary Clinton was more explicit, saying that Obama "wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions."

It is the latter variety which Netanyahu administration officials have often cited as the rationale for settlement expansion.

Today's Times reports on how Obama and Clinton are now taking their dispute with Israel public to apply greater pressure on the Netanyahu administration, which is still unwilling to commit to a two-state solution. And in a potential harbinger of the momentous shift in American politics that some observers have predicted, the Obama administration appears to be providing the usually hawkish pro-Israel, Jewish American community with the cover to criticize the ultra-conservative Israeli government.

"This approach is predicated on the assumption that an Israeli prime minister needs a tough American president to justify tough decisions to an Israeli public," former United States ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, no dove, told the Times. "People in the American Jewish community and in Israel are sick of settlement activity. The whole zeitgeist has changed."

As the Times notes, it will now be most interesting to see if some of Israel's most traditionally staunch defenders in New York, people like Jerry Nadler, Eliot Engel, Gary Ackerman, Nita Lowey, and even Chuck Schumer, come along. 

Gillibrand might not want to take credit now for being one of the first federal officials to talk plainly about the new reality in U.S.-Israel relations. But she saw it coming.