Hillary Clinton spoke before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) this morning, and she spent some time arguing against Donald Trump, who will be speaking to the group tonight. What was striking is how Clinton positioned herself to Trump’s right on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians.
Before we get to what she said, I have to admit that as someone who’s conflicted or maybe despairing on the subject of Israel (if you’re curious, you can read some of my thoughts on the topic of liberal American Jews and Israel here), there’s a part of me that thinks no one who claims to be a progressive should speak at AIPAC unless it’s to take them to task. Bernie Sanders could have done that, but he declined their invitation. In The group long ago ceased to be what it claims to be — an advocate for Israel — and became an advocate for one political faction in Israel, the Likud.
Nevertheless, the closest thing we have to a debate on the subject of Israel, particularly in a presidential campaign, is which candidate is more purely “pro-Israel.” And if you don’t go to AIPAC, you’ll be accused of being “anti-Israel.” But the very idea is the enemy of rational thought. For instance, is it “pro-Israel” to support the continued building of settlements in the West Bank? Benjamin Netanyahu thinks so; Israeli liberals disagree, as do many other people. It’s no less absurd to say that whatever Netanyahu thinks about anything is “pro-Israel” than it would be to say that cutting taxes or repealing the Affordable Care Act is “pro-America” while the opposite position is “anti-America.” That’s not to mention the fact that we don’t talk about any other country that way. I’m sure many American conservatives disagree with some of the policies Justin Trudeau’s liberal government is enacting, but that doesn’t make them “anti-Canada,” any more than it makes American liberals “anti-Britain” when they disagree with David Cameron.
In any case, every politician knows what they have to do when it comes to AIPAC: go to the conference, talk about the times you’ve visited the Holy Land, wax rhapsodic about the deep connection between our two countries, say that when you’re elected the bond between us will be stronger than ever, and make sure everyone knows that you’re as “pro-Israel” as you could possibly be.
There has been a shift recently, however. For many years, everyone paid lip service to the idea that a two-state solution, with Palestinians eventually freed from Israeli occupation and left to govern themselves, was what we all wanted. The difference was that Democrats usually meant it, and many Republicans didn’t. These days, many Republicans no longer pretend that the Palestinians deserve self-government, or any rights at all. Ask them about a two-state solution, and they’ll just talk about how Palestinians are terrorists.
Clinton’s brief discussion of this issue in her speech can only be described as half-hearted:
“It may be difficult to imagine progress in this current climate when many Israelis doubt that a willing and capable partner for peace even exists. But inaction cannot be an option. Israelis deserve a secure homeland for the Jewish people. Palestinians should be able to govern themselves in their own state, in peace and dignity. And only a negotiated two-state agreement can survive those outcomes.”
What she failed to mention is that the current government of Israel isn’t a “willing partner” to negotiations either. Just before he got reelected last March, Prime Minister Netanyahu made explicit what everyone already knew, that there will never be a Palestinian state on his watch. And in her entire speech, the closest Clinton got to a criticism of the Israeli government was this line: “Everyone has to do their part by avoiding damaging actions, including with respect to settlements.” If you were her speechwriter, that’s about what you’d come up with if she told you, “Put the word ‘settlements’ in there somewhere just so I can say I mentioned it, but make it so vague that it doesn’t actually sound like I’m taking any position at all.”
Clinton also came out forcefully against the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions), which seeks to exert pressure on Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians. I’m not going to wade into the debate over BDS, but it was striking that Clinton took what is essentially the position of maximal opposition to BDS: not that it has legitimate arguments to make even if it often takes them too far, or that the movement tolerates anti-Semites within its ranks, or that people within it are starting from liberal values and thus might be persuaded to agree with someone like her, but that the entire thing is anti-Semitic and therefore must simply be fought:
“Many of the young people here today are on the front lines of the battle to oppose the alarming boycott, divestment and sanctions movement known as BDS.
“Particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world, especially in Europe, we must repudiate all efforts to malign, isolate and undermine Israel and the Jewish people.
“I’ve been sounding the alarm for a while now. As I wrote last year in a letter to the heads of major American Jewish organizations, we have to be united in fighting back against BDS.”
And she took on Trump for saying in February that when it comes to negotiations between the two sides, he would attempt to be “neutral.” His opponents in the Republican primaries have gotten a lot of mileage out of that one word, and Clinton used it against him as well: “Yes, we need steady hands, not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday, and who knows what on Wednesday, because everything’s negotiable.”
In Trump’s defense (yes, I just wrote those words), when this subject comes up he’ll say as loudly as anyone else how “pro-Israel” he is, but when he used that term he was talking about being an arbiter in negotiations. And he’s forthright in saying it’s basically a ruse. “I would like to at least have the other side think I’m somewhat neutral as to them, so that we can maybe get a deal done,” he said at the last debate. “I think it’s probably the toughest negotiation of all time. But maybe we can get a deal done.”
I’m sure that just like on every other policy issue, it would be generous to call Trump’s understanding of Israeli-Palestinian conflict superficial (though you have to give him some credit for acknowledging that even his super-human powers of negotiation might not be able to break the impasse). Clinton, on the other hand, probably knows that just like every other president who has tried, she won’t be able to move the two parties toward a real and permanent resolution. And let’s be honest: she’s unlikely to pay any real price for having nothing to say on Israel that is at all encouraging to anyone who wants a lasting peace. Maybe that’s just being realistic. But it’s still nothing to cheer about.