There were two clear targets in Hillary Clinton’s speech to the AIPAC conference given this morning. One was obviously Donald Trump. Though she never mentioned him by name, Clinton took shots at the GOP frontrunner’s comments about being neutral between Israel and the Palestinians and the notion that everything in a Trump administration would be “negotiable.” She also made pointed remarks about the bond between Israel and the United States being rooted in common values that highlighted Trump’s dog whistles about race, prejudice, and violence.
But as much as she sought to highlight the contrast between herself and Trump, the real question Israel’s supporters should be asking about Clinton’s remarks is whether or not they can take seriously elements of the speech that seem to indicate that she is also looking to distance herself from her former rival and boss: President Obama.
While Clinton is often tone deaf to what voters need or want to hear, eight years in the Senate representing New York taught her how to speak to an AIPAC audience. She struck just the right note of passion and concern in a speech that pushed most of the buttons that generally work. She extolled the alliance between the two countries with the usual rhetoric heard at AIPAC. Yet she then went on to speak in detail about the military alliance and maintain Israel’s qualitative edge against possible foes.
More importantly, Clinton also spoke directly to condemn the BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) movement seeking economic war against Israel and linked it to the rising tide of global anti-Semitism. These are points that had to resonate with AIPAC activists because they go beyond the usual talking points heard on the campaign trail.
But what was really interesting about Clinton’s speech was not so much her willingness to embrace the pro-Israel community’s concerns as it was her delicate attempts to distance herself from President Obama.
Considering that Clinton was secretary of state for the first four years of Obama’s administration, that’s a difficult trick to pull off. Indeed, a lot of her speech might have gone down easier if her audience was able to forget that she served as point person for Obama’s effort to create more “daylight’ between Israel and the United States.
Yet there was no doubt that Clinton was sending a not-so-subtle signal that her foreign policy would not only be very different in tone but might also raise the possibility of some substantial changes.
The first key point was that Clinton is clearly discarding the keynote of Obama’s attitude on Israel from his first day in office. Far from praising the daylight that was supposed to help bring peace to the region but which, instead, only encouraged more Palestinian intransigence and violence, Clinton said that relations between the two allies needed to be closer than ever. That may be a matter of atmospherics rather than policy, but it is a clear shot at the president.
Of course, the primary obstacle to any successful distancing between Clinton and Obama is her support for the Iran nuclear deal. On that point, Clinton sounded like a loyal administration vassal extolling the pact for its impact on Iran’s ability to build a weapon in the next few years even while she ignored the fact that it made it far more likely that Tehran would get a bomb with international permission once the deal expired in a decade. But even there, Clinton sought to offer AIPAC supporters some hope.
In contrast to the administration’s feckless pursuit of good relations with Iran, Clinton talked tough about the implementation of the agreement. Obama and John Kerry, Clinton’s successor at the State Department, have sounded at times as if the purpose of the deal was détente rather than a limited effort aimed at restraining its nuclear program. In contrast, Clinton promised strict enforcement of the nuclear provisions while also sounding a note of caution about Iran’s involvement with terrorism. More significantly, she spoke about encouraging dissent against the Islamist regime, something the administration has refused to do even hundreds of thousands of people were in the streets of Tehran demonstrating against the Iranian government. Clinton also made noises about U.S. commitment in the region that had a distinctly different tone from Obama’s “lead from behind” approach.
As for the Palestinians, Clinton made the usual bow in the direction of a two-state solution as well as a brief mention of her disagreement with Israel about settlement building. While condemning the Palestinian leadership for its role in fomenting violence and terror, she failed to speak of any tangible steps by which the Palestinian Authority might be held accountable for its behavior, including aid cutoffs.
But here again, she tried to pivot away from Obama by giving an ironclad commitment to back up Israel at the United Nations if the Palestinians tried to circumvent the peace process with an end-around maneuver in which they got recognition without first having to make peace. The administration has issued clear threats to Israel that it might not veto anti-Israel resolutions at the Security Council this fall. Clinton’s purpose was to make it clear that she wanted no part of the president’s obsessive pursuit of his vendetta against Netanyahu.
It needs hardly be said that Clinton’s remarks ought to be taken with the usual truckload of salt that is required to understand any presidential candidate’s pre-election promises regarding Israel. Having been all over the place in terms of her record on Israel in the last 20 years, Clinton’s credibility isn’t good. But as much as she is counting on being seen as Obama’s heir in order to motivate minority voters to turn out for her this fall, she’s also hoping that pro-Israel voters won’t hold her association with the president’s Middle East policies won’t be held against her.
One final point needs to be made about Clinton’s speech. For the last two decades, Republicans have become the pro-Israel party while increasing numbers of Democrats moved away from support for the Jewish state. But Democrats have called foul on GOP efforts to bring this fact to the attention of the voters. Democrats have treated any inference that one party was better than the other on Israel as an instance in which the Republicans were attempting to “politicize” an issue that ought to remain bipartisan. But by going after Trump for his neutrality remarks, Clinton was signaling that politicization is fine so long as the object of the barb is a member of the GOP. Coming from the leader of the party that whipped the vote on the Iran nuclear deal while blasting the GOP for uniformly opposing a deal that was bad for Israel and the United States, that appeal to partisanship is evidence that Clinton’s hypocrisy knows no limits.