Clinton's turn at Aipac, before Trump's.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Clinton's Convenient Evolution on Israel

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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An hour after Hillary Clinton delivered a stem-winder at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference, Republicans issued a statement denouncing her as a phony. According to the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, the speech was a "whitewash" of her anti-Israel record as secretary of state.

It's easy to understand why Republicans would be so quick to pounce. A large majority of Americans tell pollsters -- year after year -- that they're on Israel's side. So attacking the Democrats as being weak on the Jewish state is good politics.

There's more to it than just that. The party must feel compelled to speak out against Clinton on Israel, because at least rhetorically she has been more pro-Israel than the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump. Clinton says she would never be neutral when it comes to Israel's security. Trump has said he would be neutral in his pursuit of a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Clinton has touted her friendship with an Israeli-American donor, Haim Saban. Trump famously told the Republican Jewish Coalition last year that he didn't need the group's money.

Clinton is fluent in the wonkish language of modern Zionism. She opposes BDS, or the "boycott, divest and sanction" movement in vogue these days on college campuses. Trump never gets this specific.

But the main reason Republicans attack Clinton on Israel is because their party expected to be the beneficiary of President Barack Obama's own policy of publicly distancing America from Israel on issues like settlements, Iran and other matters of Middle East security. After all, Clinton was Obama's secretary of state in his first term. She began the negotiations -- at first kept from Israel -- that led to the nuclear deal with Iran. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Aipac itself lobbied against that deal last year. 

"She delivered a shrewd speech, managing to position herself as a pro-Israel stalwart despite a record of supporting the Iran deal, helping Obama distance the U.S. from Israel, and taking point on many of the administration's attacks on Netanyahu," said Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a group that has criticized Obama's Middle East policies.

The Republican Party certainly does not have a lock on the pro-Israel vote. For years Democrats were the more pro-Israel party. It was Democratic President Harry Truman who overruled his secretary of state and made the U.S. the first country to recognize Israel as a nation-state, in 1948. Truman's successor, the Republican Dwight Eisenhower, on the other hand, pressured Israel to withdraw forces from Egypt in 1956 during the Suez crisis.

Even the Republican hero Ronald Reagan's State Department condemned Israel for bombing Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 (though privately he brushed off the incident, telling aides: "boys will be boys"). Reagan's Republican successor, George H.W. Bush, threatened to suspend loan guarantees to Israel, part of an effort to pressure its government to participate in the Madrid peace conference, following the 1991 Gulf War.

President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, got further than any other president in trying to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but at the end of his presidency, he too blamed the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for failing to seize the opportunity for a two-state solution.

The next president, George W. Bush, picked up where Clinton left off. Although Bush eventually sought to restart the peace process with Israel and was the first president to call publicly for a Palestinian state, he also sided unconditionally with Israel during the second Intifadah and demanded Palestinians replace Arafat with a leader "uncompromised by terror."

Under the presidency of George W. Bush, politics also began to change.

The landscape had changed by the time Obama came into office. During Israel's early years, most progressives supported the Jewish State as the underdog, as a state that embraced socialist ideals that provided a safe haven for Jews in the shadow of the Holocaust. However, by 2009, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had lived under an occupation for four decades. Meanwhile the threat from Israel's traditional enemies in the Arab world had subsided. The Jewish state was no longer an underdog for the left, but rather -- in the words of the son of one of Hillary Clinton's advisers, a "Goliath." 

While Obama never went as far as the academic left in demonizing Israel, he was happy to publicly chide Netanyahu and warn Israelis that they were on the path to becoming a pariah if the occupation of Palestinian territory continued indefinitely.

These stark warnings were missing from Hillary Clinton's speech Monday to Aipac. She expressed her desire for a two-state solution, and she warned against "damaging actions, including with respect to settlements." But she also pledged to oppose any efforts by the United Nations or other parties to impose a two-state solution on the parties. She was also more specific in her condemnation of the Palestinians. "Terrorism should never be encouraged or celebrated, and children should not be taught to hate in schools. That poisons the future," she said.

Clinton didn't say this sort of thing when she was secretary of state. She emphasized how the two-state solution was important to both Palestinians and Israelis. In a speech in 2010 before the American Task Force on Palestine, Clinton spoke about "the indignity of occupation," and the "right of Palestinians to chart their own destinies."

Clinton as secretary of state appeared to be neutral on the conflict that has vexed Israel since its founding. She supported a peace deal for the sake of both sides. As she runs for president in 2016, though, Clinton chides Trump for promising this same kind of neutrality. No wonder Republicans are hoping pro-Israel voters will question her sincerity in November.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net