Clinton At State: Will Senator Step Away From Israel?

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.

Clinton At State: Will Senator Step Away From Israel?