Special Series on 2016 Presidential Election: Hillary Clinton

Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.

The 2016 Presidential Election is already in full swing as Republican and Democratic candidates hold campaign events and court voters.

Campaign consultants usually advice candidates to distinguish and separate themselves from the rest of the field, but apparently that memo gets lost when it comes to Israel/Palestine as nearly all candidates – regardless of otherwise strong ideological disagreements – conform to the basest of pro-Israel bromides.

It may seem repetitive, but it is worth displaying and analyzing the candidates’ views to appreciate the tone and substance of public discourse on Israel and Palestine.

Throughout the campaign, Palestine Square will be highlighting candidate statements and declarations on Israel, Palestine and related matters, such as the Iran nuclear agreement.

For our first entry in the Special Series on the 2016 Presidential Election: 

Democrat – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: 

American politics is never without its fair share of unexpected twists, yet many political pundits believe that the Democratic front runner, Hillary Clinton, has a “lock” on the nomination and, subsequently, the White House. If she does indeed secure the party’s nomination and wins the 2016 election, her presidency would certainly entail significant repercussions for U.S.-Israeli relations and America’s role as the self-styled “honest broker” between the Israelis and Palestinians.

We aim to offer some general insights into what a Clinton administration could hold for the Israeli-Palestinian issue by analyzing her voting record in the Senate, tenure as secretary of state, and relationship with major donors. Though Clinton is tenuously veering to the left of President Obama on most economic and social issues, as a recent article in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz notes, the one exception is Israel.

Legislative Record

Hillary Clinton was voted into the Senate in January 2001, where she represented the State of New York until January 2009 – leaving office to serve as President Obama’s secretary of state. Throughout her years as senator, she supported some of the Bush administration’s key initiatives, such as the PATRIOT Act, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. This is not to suggest that she was simply a lap-dog of the Bush administration, but that her views on foreign policy have always been hawkish – not quite the “modern progressive” she claims to be. The fact that she often supported the Bush administration’s aggressive foreign policy displays her ambitions to assert U.S. hegemony in the region, of which an almost unconditional support of Israel is part of the strategy. A brief look at her voting record on Israel-Palestine in the Senate proves this point.

In 2004, Senator Clinton co-sponsored resolution S.Res.408 (108th Congress) that supported the “construction by Israel of a security fence to prevent terrorist attacks” and condemned “the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legality of the security fence.” The resolution came just eleven days after the ICJ’s ruling that Israel’s construction of a wall in occupied Palestine is contrary to international law. Rather than condemning the illegal occupation, Clinton championed the wall, claiming that “this is not against the Palestinian people, this is against terrorists” during a trip to Israel in 2005. She also echoed a widely used Israeli talking point as she further blamed the situation in the West Bank and Gaza on the Palestinians themselves: “the Palestinian people have to help to prevent terrorism. They have to change their attitudes about terrorism.”

In response to Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative election, Clinton co-sponsored the Palestinian Terrorism Act of 2006 (S.2370, 109th Congress). The bill claims to “support a peaceful, two-state solution,” yet at the same time denied Hamas any participation into the so-called peace process unless it “agrees to recognize Israel, renounce violence, disarm, and accept prior agreements, including the Roadmap.” Nowhere did the bill identify the occupation as a fundamental source of conflict and grievance. It was this bill, signed into law by President Bush in December 2006, that reinforced the United States’ economic and political isolation of Hamas, whereby the Hamas-controlled PA in Gaza was denied vital funding for basic societal needs. Despite the constant championing of democracy in mainstream American political discourse, U.S. foreign policy punished Gazans for voting the “wrong way.”

Following the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, Clinton co-sponsored S.Res.534 (109th Congress), a resolution expressing “steadfast support for Israel” and urging “the President to continue to fully support Israel in exercising its right of self-defense in Lebanon” (emphasis added). This resolution, when coupled with the Bush administration’s decision to expedite the delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel, demonstrates the ways in which the United States offered Israel a carte blanche for its actions in Lebanon.

Secretary of State

In May 2009, Secretary of State Clinton stated that, “Obama wants to see a stop to settlements. Not some settlements.” She herself publicly opposed the construction of settlements, calling them “illegitimate” and a “set back” for a negotiated peace. These comments came in the context of the White House’s failed effort to secure a freeze on Israeli settlements; while Clinton was a team player, such comments may not foreshadow her own stances and priorities as president. Furthermore, by November, Clinton fell into line with Israel’s protest that the freezing of illegal settlements should be a point of negotiation rather than a precondition for the resumption of peace talks.

In 2012 Clinton heavily criticized the Palestinian initiative in the U.N. to upgrade their status from “observer entity” to “non-member observer state.” Reflecting the United States’ continued isolation from global public opinion (borne out by the 138-9 vote in the Palestinians’ favor), Clinton described the decision as “unfortunate and counterproductive” and insisted that peace can only be achieved through “direct negotiations.” While declaring her support for the “goal of a Palestinian state,” she nonetheless criticized the U.N. vote as a “step in the wrong direction.”

Campaign Supporters

Following the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which removed campaign finance restrictions on donations to putatively independent political action committees (PACs), winning the support of mega-donors is crucial to any presidential campaign and may even trump following trends within one’s own party.

A recent survey by veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz provides further evidence of a drift among rank-and-file Democrats from a largely pro-Israel consensus toward one with significant support for Palestinians: 45% of polled Democrats said they would be more likely to vote for a politician who criticized the Israeli occupation and mistreatment of Palestinians while only 24% said they would be less likely (the figures for Republicans were 6% and 75%, respectively). While 51% of Democrats (and 90% of Republicans) believe the US should support Israel over the Palestinians and 46% describe themselves as “pro-Israeli”; an effectively equal number believe American policy should be neutral (31%) or support the Palestinians (18%), and 25% describe themselves as “pro-Palestinian.” Perhaps most notable, 47% of Democrats agree with the characterization of Israel as a “racist country” and a lesser 32% disagree with the statement.

The Luntz survey demonstrates that while Democratic voters, akin to the American public at large, still lean in sympathy more toward Israel than the Palestinians, the party now includes a significant bloc of support for the Palestinians. The perceptible transformation in opinion may restrain traditional pro-Israeli bromides among candidates vying for the party’s presidential nomination (and may even compel a word or two of sympathy for Palestinians), but a transformation in political discourse will likely not be forthcoming until the next election cycle. Case in point: Clinton’s letter to Beverly Hills media and communications mogul Haim Saban.

Saban is an Israeli-American billionaire, long-time Clinton campaign donor (both Bill and Hillary), and back in 2002 made headlines for the largest ever single donation to the Democratic party ($7 million). Although not of the Likud variety, Saban is a staunch backer of pro-Israel causes and when determining whether to financially support a candidate, as he explained to the New Yorker, “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel.” Recently, Saban has teamed up with his Republican counterpart – Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson – to fund efforts against the growing pro-Palestinian BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), which seeks to rally international coalitions against Israeli occupation akin to the pressure campaign against South Africa’s apartheid regime.

On 2 July 2015, Saban released a letter addressed to him from Clinton. Although dictated as if it were a personal letter to an old friend, it served the purpose of a policy brief detailing Clinton’s unwavering support for Israel by way of her commitment to combat the BDS movement. Indeed, she assured Saban, it would be a “priority.”

Pro-Israel electioneering is par for the course in American politics and given the aforementioned survey the safe bet is still a pro-Israel line with the caveat of support for “peace.” Nevertheless, the fact that 1-in-4 Democratic voters describe themselves as “pro-Palestinian” was not enough to restrain Clinton’s categorical attack on a non-violent, grassroots-led, and popular movement endorsed by key Democratic constituents (several labor unions and liberal churches support BDS, which is also very popular among the thousands of liberal college students who have passed pro-BDS divestment resolutions on their campuses). The letter implied that BDS is anti-Semitic by drawing a direct line between criticism of Israel (or what Clinton calls “efforts to malign”) and the killing of four French Jews in a Paris Kosher market in January 2015. In addition, Clinton solicited Saban’s advice on how the U.S. should “defend Israel at every turn” and closed with the apparently irresistible evocation of the Zionist myth of a Jewish state “bloom[ing] in the middle of a desert.” The word “Palestinian” appeared only twice; once to congratulate herself for blocking “Palestinian attempts at the UN,” and the second time to insist that BDS, launched by Palestinian civil society and one of the few policy goals widely supported by a politically fractured Palestinian society, is actually “harmful to Israelis and Palestinians alike.” Nowhere did the letter recognize the very reason for BDS: Israel’s nearly 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories with unceasing dispossession and colonization of Palestinian lands. This matrix of oppression shows no end in sight and BDS was launched after the so-called “peace process” her husband presided over failed to produce anything but a more entrenched Israeli hold over Palestinian lives.

The relationship between public opinion and political stances is often not straightforward. Polls are hardly the only metric politicians and their staffs take into considerations when outlining policy views: Intensity of opinion matters more than general opinion (an apathetic majority does not need to be placated as much as a determined minority, and Israel’s supporters have never been accused of being indifferent).

While Clinton’s views on Israel and Palestine are shaped by several factors, including public opinion and undoubtedly her own pro-Israel sensibilities as an American coming-of-age at a time when Israel was portrayed as a heroic frontier democracy similar to America’s, the cultivated relationships with pro-Israel mega-donors is another factor worthy of scrutiny.

Below we have compiled a list of The Clinton Foundation’s (President Clinton’s philanthropic organization) largest donors who are also being actively courted by the Hillary for America campaign, and maintain financial relationships with pro-Israel organizations.

Haim Saban. In addition to donating at least $10 million to the Clinton Foundation in 2014, Saban also co-hosted a May fundraising event with Casey Wasserman at his Beverly Hills home, which raised close to $3 million for Hillary’s campaign. In an e-mail sent out to prospective guests and donors, Saban and Wassermann wrote, “she is and always has been a strong leader and true friend when it comes to the U.S. and Israeli relationship. Trust me we know!”

Daniel Abraham. The Slim Fast Foods founder has donated between $5-10 million to the Clinton Foundation over the past several years. Abraham’s involvement with Israeli-Palestinian concerns is long-standing, so much so that he was the guest of the late King of Saudi Arabia (at the time Crown Prince) Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud when the latter announced his Arab Peace Initiative (never officially recognized by the Israelis) for a two-state solution. Furthermore, Abraham co-founded the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace – an organization that advocates for “peace with security” and a two-state solution.

Casey Wasserman. President and Chief Executive Officer of the Wasserman Foundation and a trustee at the Clinton Foundation. The Wasserman Foundation has donated millions to pro-Israel foundations: In 2000, the Foundation donated $10.7 million to the pro-Zionist United Jewish Fund (whose Israel Experience provides free trips to Israel for American-Jewish teenagers and young adults), the World Jewish Congress (whose Supporting Israel initiative claims “Israel’s intervention in Gaza to protect its border towns has created a new surge of anti-Israel hatred providing new excuses for its de-legitimization”), and the American Jewish Committee (whose Project Interchange brings students, diplomats, business leaders and journalists from around the world to Israel in a travel tour wholly rooted in the Israeli perspective).

J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation. The philanthropic fund of the Chicago-based Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt hotel chain. In 2014, the Pritzker foundation donated between $5-10 million to the Clinton Foundation. Penny Pritzker is one of Obama’s strongest supporters, serving as his campaign finance chair in 2008 and his unofficial liaison to the pro-Israel community. For her efforts, Penny currently serves as the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Penny’s brother J.B. Pritzker served as the national finance chairman for Citizens for Hillary’s 2008 campaign. J.B. Pritzker’s chief of staff is Lee Rosen, who doubles as the chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The family has been criticized for building one of their hotels in occupied east Jerusalem following the 1967 war.

President Clinton?

Given the parameters of public opinion and the reality of American campaign fundraising, to say nothing of a robust pro-Israel majority in Congress, a President Hillary Clinton would likely hew to a policy close to the status quo ante. As the New York Times reported in March,

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a representative of a group of prominent Jewish leaders on Sunday that she wanted to put the relationship between the United States and Israel back on “constructive footing,” the representative said.

Mrs. Clinton’s comments, made in a phone call to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, contrasted in tone from recent remarks by members of the Obama administration, who have publicly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel

This would continue the fine U.S. tradition of vocal support for a two-state solution while financially underwriting the Israeli occupation and of providing the diplomatic cover for its near impunity that day-by-day renders a two-state solution irrelevant and cosigns the Palestinians to a seemingly interminable occupation.

Update:

During a recent campaign event, Clinton offered her appraisal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

“I know what the hard decisions are – for the Israelis it is security – how you secure it against a now volatile neighborhood. Security is a real issue and it is not something you can quickly resolve. For the Palestinians, it is autonomy – for them to make their own decisions and not be continually under the authority of the Israelis. And that is really where the two collide” [Emphasis ours].

Is Clinton ditching the idea of a Palestinian state for the Israeli proposal to confine Palestinians into autonomous enclaves under interminable occupation?

She added that the situation is currently not propitious for a resolution due to the regional turmoil, but that the involved parties should continue to push for a two-state solution; which Clinton, again, defined as “[the Palestinians] can have more authority over the territories they are largely responsible for” [Emphasis ours].

Clinton avoids any mention of Palestinian sovereignty, self-determination or even statehood. The sole reference to a Palestinian state is in the “two-state solution,” but her use of “autonomy” and “authority” appears to convey a state-in-name-only. This is exactly Israel’s ultimate aim: isolated cities and villages ruled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) while Israel maintains control over the West Bank, borders, et cetera. Israel would also reserve the right to invade PA territories at will; in other words, unending occupation with the PA acting as a subcontractor in Palestinian population centers. Within the PA’s archipelago, the Israelis have stated that the Palestinians can call their truncated domain a “state.” If Clinton has signed onto this vision, it would at least offer an honest description of American policy in contrast to the mendacity that characterizes U.S. diplomatic statements on the so-called “peace process” and ostensible American support for a viable Palestinian state.

Similarly, Clinton demonstrated an equal blindness to Palestinian rights in her recent statement deploring the violence in Jerusalem:

“I am alarmed by the recent wave of attacks against Israelis, including more than a dozen separate attacks since last Saturday. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. Men and women living in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere cannot carry groceries or travel to prayer without looking over their shoulder. It is wrong, and it must stop. There’s no place for violence–only dialogue can produce a lasting peace.”

The loss of civilian life is tragic on both sides, but while Clinton found time to mention the four Israeli victims there was no recognition of the deaths on the Palestinian side, including a stunning number of minors shot dead by Israeli police officers. Since October 1, thirty Palestinians have been killed, including at least eight children. Israeli police apprehended an Israeli who accidentally stabbed a Jewish individual he had mistaken for an Arab, but have shot suspected Palestinians on sight even when there was no immediate threat and arrest was possible. In recent days, Israeli politicians have called for Palestinians suspected of violence to be shot rather than arrested. Apart from suspected violent offenders, many of the Palestinians killed have been protesters. Lastly, Palestinians do not enjoy the freedom of movement – safe or otherwise – that Israelis are guaranteed.

In recent days, Clinton appears to have adopted the vision advocated by the right-wing Israeli government and the one-sided talking-points promoted by the Israel lobby. Progressives looking for a candidate who might offer hope for a more balanced foreign policy on Palestine will have to look elsewhere.

This article was co-written by the Institute for Palestine Studies’ summer interns Paul Racco and Rohan Advani.