Hillary’s Middle East

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 on Feb. 10 did little to clear up the picture, giving a narrow edge to the centrist Kadima Party of Tzipi Livni, well short of what it would take 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.”

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Hillary’s Middle East