Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Hillary Clinton on Palestinian missed opportunities for statehood

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US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was honoured at the Saban Forum in Washington on November 30, where she delivered an insightful speech on the challenges confronting the Middle East and Israel in particular. It's worth reviewing because Clinton offered a number of insights and historical reminders that anyone seeking to unravel the Middle East Gordian knot should understand.

In her prepared remarks, Clinton emphasised the strong relationship between the US and Israel and also warned about the threat Iran poses to international peace and security, reflecting that Iran has been the hardest issue she has worked on:

"... Iranian-made missiles and rockets launched from Gaza at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem only drove home what we already know: America, Israel, and the entire international community must prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. This is a commitment that President Obama has made and repeated, because we know very well the Iranian regime already exports terrorism, not only to Israel's doorstep, but across the world. If we had a map I could put up there, I could show you what we track and plot on that map - the evidence of terrorism - mostly, thankfully, plots foiled or unsuccessful. Unfortunately, as in Bulgaria, some that succeeded. But those plots, those activities of Iran directly and through their agents, stretches from Mexico to Thailand.

We see Iran bringing repression to Syria. We see Iran brutalizing their own people. So a nuclear Iran is not simply a threat to Israel. It is a threat to all nations and risks opening the floodgates on nuclear proliferation around the world. When it comes to Iran's nuclear threat, the United States does not have a policy of containment. We have a policy of prevention, built on the dual tracks of pressure and engagement, while keeping all options on the table."

However, Clinton's most revealing comments came during the Q&A session, where she lamented the many missed opportunities for peace that were the result of failures in Palestinian leadership over the past twenty years, many she had witnessed as Secretary of State and before that as First Lady during Bill Clinton's Administration. In particular, Clinton referred to Israel's offers to establish a Palestinian state by former Israeli Prime Minister and current Defence Minister Ehud Barak in 2000 and former PM Ehud Olmert in 2008 (both of whom were present in the audience), as well as Netanyahu's West Bank settlement freeze in 2009-2010. When Clinton was asked about understanding Israeli suspicion, she replied:

"Well, look, I think Israelis have good grounds to be suspicious. And I would never be one who tries to rewrite or dismiss history. The Palestinians could have had a state as old as I am if they had made the right decision in 1947. They could have had a state if they had worked with my husband and then-Prime Minister Barak at Camp David. They could have had a state if they'd worked with Prime Minister Olmert and Foreign Minister Livni.

Now, would it have been a perfectly acceptable outcome for every Israeli and every Palestinian? No. No compromise ever is. But there were moments of opportunity. And I will also say this. When Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze I flew to Jerusalem. We'd been working on this. George Mitchell had been taking the lead on it. And when Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze, it wasn't perfect. It didn't cover East Jerusalem, but it covered much of the contested area in the West Bank.

And I stood on a stage with him at 11 o'clock - Israelis always meet late at night, I don't understand it - but 11 o'clock at night, midnight, and I said it was unprecedented for any Israeli prime minister to have done that. I got so criticized. I got criticized from the right, the left, the center, Israeli, Jewish, Arab, Christian, you name it. Everybody criticized me. But the fact was it was a 10-month settlement freeze. And he was good to his word. And we couldn't get the Palestinians into the conversation until the tenth month.

So, look, I'm not making excuses for the missed opportunities of the Israelis, or the lack of generosity, the lack of empathy that I think goes hand-in-hand with the suspicion. So, yes, there is more that the Israelis need to do to really demonstrate that they do understand the pain of an oppressed people in their minds, and they want to figure out, within the bounds of security and a Jewish democratic state, what can be accomplished.

And I think that, unfortunately, there are more and more Israelis and Palestinians who just reject that idea out of hand: Why bother? Why try? We'll never be able to reach an agreement with the other. But in the last 20 years, I've seen Israeli leaders make an honest, good-faith effort and not be reciprocated in the way that was needed.

Now, I've told this story before. It always makes Ehud cringe. But after Yasser Arafat said no at Camp David - and I don't care how many people try to revise that history, the fact is he said no at Camp David - some months later he calls my husband, when Bill is no longer President, and says, "You know that deal that you offered? I'll take it now." And Bill goes, "Well, that's terrific. Why don't you call the White House and tell them that?" And what was the lesson that President Bush learned? Why try? Bill Clinton spent so much time and effort; Ehud Barak put his political life on the line. Why try? Because you'll never get where you're trying to go, so work on something else.

So I think that - I really believe this with all my heart. I think that even if you cannot reach a complete agreement that resolves all these incredibly hard issues, it is in Israel's interest to be trying. It gives Israel a moral high ground that I want Israel to occupy. That's what I want Israel to occupy, the moral high ground.

And so from my perspective, all those efforts of the past - I mean, I do believe there would have been a Palestinian state if Yitzhak Rabin had not been murdered. I believe that. Because I think the Israeli people would have trusted him to take the hard decisions that were needed. So for the 20 years that I've been watching this very closely, I give credit to a lot of Israeli leaders, trying to figure out how to manage this difficult situation. But I really am saddened when the conclusion is it's just not worth trying and walk away, build the wall higher, more Iron Dome - all of which is essential, but is not sufficient. Because more and more technology is going to impose greater and greater burdens that over time will be very difficult."

To read the full speech click here.

The Saban Forum is convened by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, a subsidiary of the Brookings Institution. This year's audience included Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, US Senator Joe Liberman - who both recently announced their retirement, as well as Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Meridor and former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert.

The Forum's proceedings started with a video that included praise for Clinton by world leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and Senator John McCain - the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.

Clinton is ending her service as US Secretary of State in January, and many are speculating that her plan may be to begin preparing to run as a candidate for the US Presidency in 2016. Interestingly, Blair and Netanyahu both suggested in the video shown at the Forum that they believed Clinton would return to politics.

Sharyn Mittelman

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