Hillary Rodham Clinton was in Israel Monday for her fourth visit as secretary of state; the third, however, was 22 months ago. On the other hand, Clinton’s visit came hard on the heels of one by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and it was further reported on Monday that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would be coming to Jerusalem at the end of July.
While Donilon’s visit was kept rather hushed-up, clearly part of the motive for Clinton and Panetta’s visits is political with GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney also scheduled to be here at the end of July. With President Obama himself never having stopped by the Holy Land since taking office, and his party nervous about the Jewish vote, visibly dispatching Clinton and Panetta here is intended to offset some of the political capital that Romney hopes to gain with his visit.
Undoubtedly, though, more than mere politicking is at play in this flurry of high-level contacts. Clinton’s previous stop was Egypt, where the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi as president has given Israel the jitters while—publicly at least—evoking mainly plaudits and encouragement from Washington.
Photo Credit 2011: Harald Dettenborn
But while Morsi’s capacity to wreak harm remains uncertain, as Egypt’s Supreme Military Council tries to curb his powers and the country remains mired in a severe economic crisis, two other Middle Eastern flashpoints pose much more imminent threats. In Syria, chaos looms with Islamist elements now spearheading the rebels and the country’s vast chemical and biological weapons stockpiles in danger of falling into radical hands. And in Iran, the race to the bomb continues unimpeded by insufficient sanctions, let alone the ludicrously hollow “negotiations” between Iran and the P5+1 countries.
With war clouds darkening the putative “Arab Spring,” then, one might have expected a much lower profile for the “peace”—that is, Palestinian—issue in Clinton’s visit on Monday compared to her earlier stopovers. A day earlier, Obama, asked by a TV interviewer where he felt he had failed as president, replied that he had “not been able to move the peace process forward in the Middle East the way I wanted.” Reports in the Israeli media on Monday night said Clinton had met only briefly at her Jerusalem hotel with Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad, without making the once-obligatory stop in Ramallah.
On the other hand, hopes that the last three and a half years have sobered the administration on this score had to be tempered by Obama’s added remark that “the truth of the matter is that the parties, they’ve got to want [peace] as well”—an equivalency that indicates an ongoing inability to distinguish between Israel, a democracy that has sometimes made desperate concessions in the hope of peace, and a Palestinian side that systematically instills hatred and rejection of Israel in its population.
Indeed, the Palestinian issue appears to have figured heavily in Clinton’s meeting Monday night with Israel’s prime minister, with the secretary of state reportedly pressuring Binyamin Netanyahu to woo the Authority back to the negotiating table with gifts of small weapons and released prisoners. Clinton was said to have further told Netanyahu that time was of the essence in “achieving peace” with Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas since it’s not known who will be replacing them. The perception, then, that Israel can do something to bribe and entice “peace” out of a Palestinian side that negates its very existence seems an implacable article of faith for the Obama administration.
And it wasn’t only the Palestinian issue. Clinton also urged Netanyahu to mend Israel’s rift with Turkey, seemingly impervious to the fact that it was—among other things—Ankara’s dispatching of the terrorist-laden Mavi Marmara vessel to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza, and Islamist prime minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s subsequent obsessive excoriation of Israel for its commandos’ having defended themselves against a lynch attempt on the ship, that widened what was already a growing rift. Again, despite professions of commitment to Israel and an undeniable degree of security cooperation, the ability to blame the Jewish state for its troubles in a hostile and unstable Middle East appears embedded in this administration’s DNA.
On the Egyptian issue, Clinton reportedly sought to convey a calming message to Netanyahu and Defense Secretary Ehud Barak, telling them the newly crowned President Morsi is currently preoccupied with domestic issues and not with unraveling the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. And on Iran, the secretary of state told a press conference late Monday evening that the U.S. would “use all elements of American power” to stop Tehran from going nuclear.
One can conjecture that, given this administration’s difficulty grasping Middle Eastern realities and trouble distinguishing friends from foes and moderates from radicals, the Israeli leaders were not necessarily pacified by Clinton’s reassurances about Morsi. And as for Iran, how much stock to put in Obama and his lieutenants’ repeated avowals and tough words is the central and most difficult question now confronting Jerusalem.
P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel. He blogs at http://pdavidhornik.typepad.com.