The latest Clinton emails from Wikileaks tell a fascinating story about the time in 2015 that President Obama tried to reset the Israel relationship, and the New York Times and Hillary Clinton and the Israel lobby wouldn’t let him.
You surely remember that back in March 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won reelection in a surprise victory by making last-minute appeals to rightwing voters that he would never allow a Palestinian state, and that Arab voters were coming out to the polls “in droves.” And the White House objected strongly both to the racism and the frank abandonment of the holy grail, the two-state solution.
Netanyahu walked back the two-state comment and the racism; but Obama wasn’t buying. And at a press availability on March 24 that will go down in history as the “Kumbaya” statement, an exasperated president expressed anger at the prime minister for his gyrations and hinted at consequences at the U.N.
I’ve said before and I’ll simply repeat: Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the election run-up, stated that a Palestinian state would not occur while he was Prime Minister. And I took him at his word that that’s what he meant, and I think that a lot of voters inside of Israel understood him to be saying that fairly unequivocally…
But I am required to evaluate honestly how we manage Israeli-Palestinian relations over the next several years…. we can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen at least in the next several years. That is something that we have to, for the sake of our own credibility, I think we have to be able to be honest about that.
Here’s the Kumbaya part. Obama said it wasn’t just a personal issue between himself and the Prime Minister:
[T]here’s a tendency I think in the reporting here to frame this somehow as a personal issue between myself and Prime Minister Netanyahu. And I understand why that’s done, because when you frame it in those terms, the notion is, well, if we all just get along and everybody cools down, then somehow the problem goes away….
[T]he issue is a very clear, substantive challenge. We believe that two states is the best path forward… And Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different approach. And so this can’t be reduced to a matter of somehow let’s all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.”
The sharp language alarmed New York Times correspondent Jodi Rudoren, who over four years in Jerusalem reliably conveyed the Israeli Jewish perspective back to the States. She wrote a piece titled, “Rebukes From White House Risk Buoying Netanyahu”– and trivialized Obama’s comments, as if he didn’t know what he was doing. Her story made it out to be personal between the two leaders. Many Israelis, she said,
have been astonished by the unrelenting White House criticism that has helped sink relations between Washington and Jerusalem to a nadir not seen for more than 25 years…
Mr. Obama showed no signs on Tuesday of softening his stance on Mr. Netanyahu’s momentary disavowal of the two-state solution that has long been the cornerstone of American policy. [Kumbaya moment followed]
The article in turn alarmed Hillary Clinton.
Clinton was preparing to announce her run for the presidency in three weeks. The last thing she needed was turbulence between the U.S. and Israel that would leave her stuck in the middle, trying to cleave to both Obama, who is popular among Democrats, and Netanyahu, who is popular among American supporters of Israel. On the night that Rudoren’s piece came out, Clinton sent it along to her top foreign policy aide, Jake Sullivan, per an email leaked by Wikileaks.
Sullivan promptly wrote back, mirroring brilliantly as Rhodes Scholars do, and copied campaign chair John Podesta:
Potus [President of the United States] comments today surprised me a bit. Doubt they surprised you two, but I thought he would be more measured.
Hillary followed up the next morning:
I think this pushing me to have to say something sooner instead of later.
What she meant was saying something in favor of Israel and Netanyahu, which would be a theme of her imminent campaign.
So that day, March 25, 2015, the braintrust decided that Clinton should have a call with a leader of the American Israel lobby: Malcolm Hoenlein, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein is a powerful figure, whom Obama had reached out to when he wanted to hire Clinton as secretary of state 7 years before.
Sullivan wrote to Podesta:
Maybe she just calls him [Hoenlein]. Word will get around.
Yes…. If we do that we can background a reporter on that call.
Later Jake extremely-useful-to-everyone-who-matters Sullivan sent an email to Hillary Clinton scripting the call. Clinton will be nicer to Israel than President Obama, but she should avoid talking with Hoenlein about the Iran deal (which Clinton was planning to endorse):
HRC, John —
If you both continue to agree that taking a call from Malcolm makes sense, I can get it teed up tomorrow or Friday.
There are two keys, from my perspective.
First, that you and he agree what he is going to say about it — something simple like, “she thinks we need to all work together to put the relationship on a more constructive footing, to get back to basics, and to ensure that Israel never becomes a partisan issue.”
Second, that if he raises Iran, you tell him you’d be happy to discuss at some point in greater detail but not get pulled into a long conversation. (I’m also happy to follow up with him on this — he and I have a very good relationship on Iran.)
Stagecraft was important. Sullivan suggested that Clinton just call Hoenlein, but “H” had a better idea:
I’d rather he reach out and say he wants to talk to me and then I can call him back. Also, will you coordinate w WH?
So the call happened– surely “teed up” by Sullivan, and coordinated with the White House. I.e., we’re about to sell you out on this one, POTUS.
And three days later, on March 28, the Conference of Presidents issued a readout of a phone call announcing that Clinton was throwing Obama under the bus.
SECRETARY CLINTON: RETURN THE SPECIAL US-ISRAEL RELATIONSHIP TO CONSTRUCTIVE FOOTING, TO BASIC SHARED INTERESTS AND CONCERNS
Clinton’s statement was nearly verbatim Sullivan’s script:
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a telephone discussion with Malcolm Hoenlein… that she “thinks we need to all work together to return the special US-Israel relationship to constructive footing, to get back to basic shared concerns and interests.” The Secretary said this includes “a two-state solution pursued through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.” She further noted that, “we must ensure that Israel never becomes a partisan issue.”
The Conference’s announcement also contained this bald lie:
Mr. Hoenlein, who initiated the conversation, said that…
The next day, Sunday, March 29, the story popped up in Politico, the Times of Israel, and of course the New York Times. “Clinton Wants to Improve Ties With Israel,” Times reporter Maggie Haberman quoted Hoenlein’s statement and allowed the campaign to play innocent:
A spokesman for Mrs. Clinton confirmed that she had spoken to Mr. Hoenlein, but would not elaborate on what they had discussed or say if he had quoted her accurately.
The eagle had landed. The next day, according to this Wikileak, megadonor Haim Saban, whose one issue is Israel, was very pleased. He congratulated Clinton aide Huma Abedin:
Hey Huma. A very good statement ,,,,,w/o saying anything that would show even a sign of criticism of the administration. Very smart and politically correct. Pls say thanks to the lady.
Then Saban included Podesta in a followup:
Also pls be aware that these articles will be mailed to thousands of people who are interested in the subject matter and who have been asking themselves ,,,,and me ,many times “Where is Hillary on this” Well ,,,,,now they will know.
Because in the end it’s about those thousands of people who give money to the campaign: as Jeffrey Goldberg puts it, “what I would delicately call the donor class of the Democratic Party, which is disproportionately Jewish.” And Zionist, he should have added.
The Democratic rank-and-file was pleased and proud when our President raged at Netanyahu. But in this discourse… we don’t count.
Thanks to James North.