With subtle shift in nuance, Hillary Clinton reiterates U.S. stance on Israel

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; A08

In the face of bipartisan concern over U.S. criticism of Israeli policies, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday reiterated the administration's demand for a "full commitment" to peace talks from Israel but also ever so slightly bolstered her rhetorical support for the Jewish state.

Clinton told reporters in Washington that the United States has an "absolute commitment to Israel's security" -- a shift in nuance compared with her characterization Friday of the United States as a "strong supporter" of Israel's security. She also hailed the "close, unshakable bond" between the two countries, in contrast to her comment Friday that "our relationship is durable and strong."

Such distinctions may seem minor, but they carry weight in the Middle East, where every line and comma is scrutinized. The office of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu immediately issued a statement saying that Israel "appreciates and respects the warm words" from Clinton on "the deep bond between the U.S. and Israel, and on the U.S. commitment to Israel's security."

Netanyahu has yet to formally respond to administration demands that he reverse an East Jerusalem building project -- announced during Vice President Biden's trip there last week -- that soured relations between the two allies. Administration officials say they expect him to call Clinton this week, perhaps as soon as Wednesday. But he has given no indication that he will take the steps requested by the administration, which some U.S. officials have suggested will test his commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinians demonstrated Tuesday in East Jerusalem and its surrounding neighborhoods, defying police and soldiers to protest Israeli policies in the holy city. Demonstrators hurled stones at the Israeli security forces, who responded with rubber-coated bullets, tear gas and stun grenades.

The administration's tough stance on Israel, relayed in a lengthy phone call from Clinton to Netanyahu on Friday, has generated a torrent of statements in recent days from pro-Israel groups and lawmakers. Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the minority whip and the House's only Jewish Republican, called White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to express his outrage.

"This attempt to curry favor with the Arabs by bullying Israel is not a wise move," Cantor said.

Other lawmakers, including some Democrats, also weighed in, with comments running the gamut from tough criticism to carefully worded concern. Some said the administration was right to bristle at Israel's actions.

"The administration had real justification for being upset with the timing of the settlements announcement," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But, he added, "we need to disentangle bilateral relations from the peace process."

Many pro-Israel groups acknowledged that Israel had made a mistake, but they also said that Clinton's phone call reopened wounds that had healed by the time Biden left the region.

The powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is to hold its annual conference in Washington next week, said Sunday that "the Administration should make a conscious effort to move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel."

The American Jewish Committee said that the "sustained harsh criticism of Israel by senior Administration officials is unprecedented and could leave the impression of a cooling of our nation's relationship with Israel."

An umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, noted what it called the "continued incitement by the Palestinian Authority," including a public celebration last week of Dalal Mughrabi, a militant who took part in a 1978 attack that killed 37 Israelis and an American.

But J Street, a relatively new organization that has been courted by the White House, insisted that the Jewish community broadly supports a "bold new approach" such as Obama outlining the parameters of a peace deal -- a step the Israeli government opposes.

The tension between the United States and Israel follows expressions of concern by U.S. military leaders that the lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is hampering their efforts in the rest of the Middle East.

In January, staff officers from the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in much of the region, gave a briefing on that theme to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, military officials said, confirming a report on ForeignPolicy.com.

"Clearly, the tensions, the issues and so forth have an enormous effect," Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "My thrust has generally been . . . to encourage that process that can indeed get that recognition that you talked about, and indeed get a sense of progress moving forward in the overall peace process, because of the effect that it has on, particularly, what I think you would term the moderate governments in our area."

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and staff writer Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company