Clinton turns history of controversial statements on Mideast into asset in talks

Palestinian militants and Israeli forces attacked each other Wednesday, forming a grim backdrop for the latest round of U.S.-driven peace negotiations. Those talks ended with no agreement on the most pressing issue: Jewish settlements.
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; 2:13 AM

AMMAN, JORDAN - As Hillary Rodham Clinton took her first stab at substantive Middle East diplomacy over the past few days, she drew on her record of controversial statements about Israel and the Palestinians - and depicted it as an asset.

It is a tricky balancing act that attests to the secretary of state's talent as a politician, as well as her predilection for getting into hot water with bold, sometimes ill-timed pronouncements.

Clinton has long taken apparently contradictory positions on the Middle East. As first lady, she hugged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's wife. As a senator from New York she staunchly defended Israel. And as President Obama's chief diplomat, she has publicly upbraided - and also bolstered - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Her diplomacy this week, which ended Thursday with a quick stop in Jordan to have lunch with King Abdullah II, was mostly behind closed doors. The results, if any, remain unclear. But there are enough past public statements from Clinton that both Israelis and Palestinians can claim her as a potential supporter.

"Both sides view her as an advocate because she has a clear history of support on the issue: security for Netanyahu and the Israelis, and statehood for [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas and the Palestinians," said Jonathan Prince, until recently a member of the administration's Middle East team under special envoy George J. Mitchell.

Clinton is not shy about her record. In an interview with Palestine TV and Israel's Channel 2 this month, Clinton said, "I'm the first person ever associated with an American administration who called for a Palestinian state as a way to realize the two-state solution." She was referring to her statement in support of a Palestinian state as first lady in May 1998, a time when her husband's administration still avoided the phrase.

The White House distanced itself from her statement, and her stance caused her headaches years later during her campaign for a New York Senate seat. At her controversial meeting with Suha Arafat in 2000, she repeatedly refused to reiterate her statehood call.

Now, however, Clinton says she was ahead of her time, frequently bringing up the remark in internal deliberations.

Similarly, while flying to Egypt for this week's talks, Clinton touted another controversial statement - her claim last year that Israel's offer of a limited moratorium on settlement construction was "unprecedented." That comment unleashed a storm of criticism in the Arab world, and even some of her key aides felt it appeared to tilt too strongly toward Israel.

But Clinton notes that the very people who then called the moratorium inadequate now insist it be extended. "Some of you may remember that when I pushed for and then went and stood with Netanyahu on behalf of the moratorium, it was summarily criticized, roundly and consistently, by everyone in the region," she said. "And I took my fair share of that criticism for saying what happened to be the fact, that it was an unprecedented decision by an Israeli government."

Aides say Clinton has prepared assiduously for the diplomacy that is now underway. She was deeply involved in overseeing more than 20 trips to the region by Mitchell in less than two years. She has studied past peace negotiations, reached out to her predecessors and other former senior officials for advice and has a weekly conversation with Obama about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Earlier this year, at the height of tensions with Israel over a perceived insult of Vice President Biden, Clinton delivered three speeches on the conflict within four weeks, each touching on a different aspect. One address, to the American Israel Political Affairs Committee, preached "tough love" on how Israel could not expect to maintain the status quo with the Palestinians without eventually losing its Jewish character and its military edge over terror groups.

Clinton often speaks with fervor about resolving the conflict, using turns of phrase that are unusual in the bland world of diplomacy. On her first trip to the region as secretary, she declared at the end of a news conference: "I feel passionately about this. This is something in my heart, not just in my portfolio." The Arab reporters present burst into applause.

Analysts say Clinton's unique combination of skills and background could prove to be an asset.

Rob Malley, who served in the Clinton administration, referred to the "archaeology of Hillary Clinton - the various layers of experience that have shaped her views," including her stints as first lady, senator with a pro-Israel constituency, and secretary of state.

"Each of those successive layers forms part of who she is, and anyone trying to divine where she stands or will stand, or how she will perform as a negotiator, needs to take all of them into account," he said. "It's a complex puzzle, and which piece of it will have more of an impact at what time and on what issue is very hard to say."

But with that background, Malley said, "she potentially can be the answer to three dilemmas the administration faces: how to reassure an Israeli government that still harbors doubts about President Obama without alienating Palestinians or Arabs; how to placate parts of the Jewish community that has misgivings about the administration without overly restricting the U.S.'s maneuvering room; and how to invest star power into the process without prematurely exposing the president."

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