Last weekend I met a 21-year-old Israeli man outside of a Barcelona night club. Proceeding as most small talk does, we quickly found ourselves discussing the ongoing U.S. election and the implications it has on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was shocked to learn that my new friend believed Donald Trump would be the more promising candidate for Israeli interests, because, as he said, “With Trump, we know he loves Israel. With Clinton, we don’t know what we’ll get.” I was confused, not only because Mr. Trump is one of the last people I associate with clarity and certainty, but because, in my mind, Secretary Clinton is about as pro-Israel of a Democrat as they come.
When I finally got online a couple of days later, I found that my Israeli friend is not alone in his conviction. In fact, a recent poll found that Israelis were split almost exactly in half when asked which American candidate would be better for Israel. Thirty-seven percent of responders favored Donald Trump, while 36 percent said Hillary Clinton. These poll numbers and my conversation with my friend piqued my interest about the potential stances of a Clinton or Trump administration towards Israel and the incredibly complex Arab-Israeli issue.
Mr. Trump said earlier in this election cycle that he would remain neutral when mediating any Israel-Palestine negotiations. Since then, his stance has become much more favorable to Israel, though his exact position still remains largely unclear and we have no previous public service to examine. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has a long record to study when it comes to Israel and Palestine. I decided to find out for myself, based on her past actions and statements, how Hillary Clinton, could situate herself with Israel and how she might approach the Israeli-Palestinian peace process should she win.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is a series of broken promises and sporadic wars going back to the end of World War I when the British government declared its support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Both Israelis and Palestinians have valid claims to a homeland in Palestine. Since the official creation of the state of Israel in 1948, there have been a number of important changes for U.S. leaders attempting to mediate the conflict. Henry Kissinger, who served as Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon, is noted for speaking directly to Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leaders. Jimmy Carter famously recognized the need for a Palestinian homeland, but ultimately failed in brokering peace. George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, held face to face Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, while also condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Bill Clinton hosted Yasser Arafat, then the leader of the PLO, at the White House and got the two parties to agree to the Oslo Accords in 1995.
In more recent history, Barack Obama has made very little progress towards a two-state solution, a fix that would create a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and has endured a strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Now, as he nears the end of his second term, many are speculating that President Obama might make one final move towards initiating peace. Obama, according to Khaled Elgindy in Foreign Affairs and others, is reportedly considering laying out a framework for a two state solution in the form of a UN Security Council Resolution. Opponents of this move argue that laying out parameters would necessarily mean the loss of Israeli territory that could otherwise be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations and would create a perceived Palestinian sense of entitlement that could decrease their incentive to negotiate. Benjamin Netanyahu opposes any such predetermined framework. In short, it is difficult to say exactly how a potential Clinton Administration would inherit the situation. It is important nonetheless to look at what this imagined administration’s posture towards Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict might be, given that leadership on the issue has become an important benchmark for assessing U.S. foreign policy.
In her 2000 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Hillary Clinton faced significant backlash against her decision to visit the Palestinian West Bank as First Lady. While it is difficult to say how much that visit reflects Mrs. Clinton’s own stance, it is worth noting that her 2000 Senate campaign was successful despite the attacks. As a U.S. Senator from 2000-2009, Hillary Clinton was a staunch supporter of Israel. She was an early advocate of the Israeli Separation Barrier, a wall between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, and spoke out against the “propaganda” being taught in Palestinian schools. During the 110th Congress, Clinton sponsored Resolution 92, which demanded the release of Israeli soldiers being held captive by Hamas and Hezbollah and expressed a desire to end hostilities through the creation of a peaceful Palestinian state. Senator Clinton co-sponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 and voted in favor of the Syria Accountability Act of 2003, which officially listed Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism.This is noteworthy because Israel views Syria as a regional threat to its existence.
During her unsuccessful 2008 presidential run, Mrs. Clinton argued that then-Senator Obama’s willingness to meet with Palestinian leaders without predetermined concessions showed just how unprepared he was to lead the nation. While campaigning, Mrs. Clinton gave a speech stating that Hamas, the elected Palestinian authority, should not be recognized until it rejected terrorism.
As Secretary of State from 2009-2013, Clinton’s preferences are a bit more difficult to understand. Secretary Clinton’s greatest achievement with regards to the Israel-Palestine conflict is the ceasefire she negotiated between Israel and Hamas in 2012. Critics will point out that this ceasefire did not last more than two years, while defenders will insist that in a conflict with such deep-rooted mistrust and animosity, Secretary Clinton made the best out of a dire situation. Clinton’s other talking point for her time at the State Department is her work on imposing international sanctions on Iran, including convincing both Russia and China to cooperate in the arrangement. While Israelis would surely appreciate Secretary Clinton’s work in ratcheting up sanctions on their regional foe, Prime Minister Netanyahu is adamantly opposed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that those sanctions resulted in.
In the 2016 election cycle, Hillary Clinton’s stance on Israel and Palestine has been very clear. When Bernie Sanders criticized Israel for its “disproportionate” response to attacks from Hamas, Hillary Clinton reiterated her traditional stance backing Israel. As the Democratic primary neared its end, another disagreement between the two party rivals surfaced. Bernie Sanders and his camp wanted to alter the wording of the official party platform to sympathize more with the Palestinian need for statehood, rather than framing the two state solution as necessary because it is in Israel’s best interest. In the end, however, Clinton’s stance prevailed and the platform was not significantly altered.
One could argue that Clinton’s campaign statements are targeted at winning votes rather than serving as a reflection of her true beliefs. One could even say that, as a Senator from New York, her strong support for Israel in and out of its conflict with Palestine was politically calculated. While her motives can be questioned, it is impossible to deny that Secretary Clinton can cite a record of support for Israel should she move decisively to pursue a two state solution. Hillary Clinton can ask for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trust in a way that Barack Obama could not. By all accounts, the Israeli Prime Minister and Hillary Clinton get along quite well, something that cannot be said of the two current heads of state.
For any future administration, the Syrian civil war will likely have to end before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can return to the frontburner. If any level of stability is restored to the Middle East, a Hillary Clinton administration likely strongly allied with Israel could be in a unique position to make headway on this intractable conflict. Hillary Clinton has the ability to bring nations together, evidenced by her State Department’s pursuit of sanctions against Iran. This experience could help to forge international trust between the U.S., China, and Russia, three countries that would almost certainly have to be on board for any peace to last. Hillary Clinton also has concrete evidence of her support for Israel from her time as an elected official. This proven track record could give President Clinton the trust she would need to draw concessions out of Benjamin Netanyahu and to forge an enduring peace.