The crowd gives her a warm welcome. Most are standing; some — noticeably — are not. Attesting that she is pleased to be back with “friends,” she jokes as she begins, “I can assure you I have received a lot of advice.” She praises the group for speaking up and advocating its views, “This is what democracy is all about.” She says the relationship between U.S. and Israel “has never been more important.” Her statement, “We know the forces that threaten Israel are the same which threaten the United States,” gains a warm ovation. She then brags about health care in a non sequitur about Obama’s resolve. Huh? “Let me assure you . . . for President Obama and me and this entire administration our commitment to Israel’s security is rock solid, enduring and forever.” The crowd rises to its feet. Is it because AIPAC can put 7,500 in a room? She says it is the shared values of democracy and freedom and common aspirations for our children and our children’s children. She says her defense of Israel is more than a policy issue but a “personal commitment that will never waver.”
She continues in this vein, telling stories of her travels as well as a moving anecdote about a medic she met, who was subsequently killed. This strikes me as a personal accounting of her own attachment and relationship with Israel, a sort of personal defense of her own pro-Israel bona fides. Did the recent criticism sting? She continues now with her defense of Obama, reminding the group that she had vouched for him when the primary ended in 2008. Stone silence. She then continues with her defense case, citing the increase in aid for Israel. Obama has made peace a priority and is leading efforts to refute attacks on Israel’s legitimacy. When she says, “This administration will always stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself,” the crowd gives a brief ovation. (Well, they did miss a recent resolution condemning Israel at the UN, but she doesn’t bring that up, of course.)
She then moves on to Iran. She gives a tough indictment of the Iranian regime’s brutality. (The gap between her rhetoric and the Obami’s policy and reaction to the June events is striking.) She says, “Let me be clear: The U.S. is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” A brief ovation. President Obama has been trying a different course from that of isolating Iran. She said this was done with the idea that the very effort of “seeking engagement will strengthen our hand,” if it were rebuffed. She cites a “growing international consensus.” Europe is on board and Russia “has moved in this direction,” she says. (Huh? Except for the decision to bolster Iran by building a nuclear plant, of course.) Sanctions that will “bite,” (different from “crippling”?) she says, are what’s in store. She says the administration will not compromise on allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. That’s it. No timeline. And a fantasy version of an international agreement to “isolate” Iran.
Turning to Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, she says that the status quo is unsustainable due to demography, technology, and ideology. We cannot ignore the long-term demographic trends that are entailed with “Israel’s occupation.” (Unclear to what territory she is referring to.) A two-state solution, she argues, is the only way to guarantee Israel’s future as a secure and Jewish state. She argues again and again that the status quo can’t continue — that it strengthens the rejectionists. She notes that unlike the past, now even countries distant from the Middle East raise the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a top concern. (She cites this as evidence that we must work on the problem, rather than as a sign that the obsession with Israel and the campaign to delegitimize it are problematic in and of themselves.) The only path to participation for Hamas, she says, requires that they recognize Israel, renounce violence, and abide by past agreements. After a long period of silence from the crowd, she gets a brief ovation by calling for Gilad Shalit’s release.
And she returns to the goal of a two-state solution — of a comprehensive peace. George Mitchell has worked tirelessly for proximity talks, but, of course, lasting peace will require direct negotiations, she promises. As for Jerusalem, it’s a “deeply and profoundly important issue,” which can be worked out in negotiations, she says. Both parties have to refrain from unilateral actions that prejudice the outcome, she argues. She labels the Palestinians’ naming of a square after a terrorist as an “insult” to people on both sides. As to that and to the call for “rage” over a Jerusalem synagogue’s restoration: “They are wrong and must be condemned.” She says this concern for preserving the peace process is what induced us to condemn the housing announcement. (Silence in the hall.) It undermines the U.S. role when this happens, she argues, and our credibility is at stake, unless we speak up, she claims. We objected because we are committed to Israel’s security and because we don’t want to see progress endangered. She continues by calling for Abbas to show his commitment to peace and credits Netanyahu with taking concrete steps for peace. She wraps up with a meandering story that goes from Moses to the early settlers to the current risks for peace.
The speech was interesting on several notes. First, the portion of it devoted to the Palestinian conflict dwarfed the discussion on Iran, reflecting — I think — quite clearly where the interests and focus of the administration lie. Second, it appears as though Clinton was stung by accusations against her less-than-resolute defense of the Jewish state so much that this speech was an attempt at personal rehabilitation. Is this her pride speaking or rather a careful maneuver in the interest of her political future? Both, perhaps. Third, there is — as with so much concerning the Obama administration — a chasm between generalities and the administration’s actions and policies. How to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? No mention of “all options” being on the table. How to achieve peace when Hamas won’t renounce violence? How is being a resolute friend to Israel congruent with bashing Israel in public over an issue that Clinton just said belonged to the final-status stage of negotiations? Those who were uneasy before heard little, in concrete terms, to reassure them. Those worried about Clinton’s reputation in the Jewish community are hoping that this is enough to set things right. But one speech to AIPAC does not a reputation make; it is her acquiescence in Obama’s gambit of distancing the U.S. from Israel that is the nub of the problem and will render her a less than popular figure among pro-Israel Americans.