03.22.10

Hillary Clinton's Warm Welcome

Ahead of Obama's meeting with Netanyahu on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton addressed the strain between the U.S. and Israel in a well-received speech at AIPAC. But is the tension really receding? Benjamin Sarlin reports from AIPAC's annual conference.

Arriving at AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) in one of the toughest months for Israeli-U.S. relations in years, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knew just the magic words to win over the audience Monday.

"Our commitment to Israel's security is rock solid, unwavering, enduring, and forever," she said, to instant applause and a standing ovation—the second of her speech, and not the last.

“As Israel’s friend, it is our responsibility to give credit when it is due and to tell the truth when it is needed,” Clinton said. She emphasized the point, but her words were received quietly.

Introduced by AIPAC's executive director, Howard Kohr, who called on the crowd to "set aside the past week and work and pledge to solve problems together," Clinton's speech offered a number of reassurances that America's spat with Israel was far from a full-scale crisis. Among them: a long and detailed condemnation of Iran's government, citing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial, and 9/11 conspiracy theories.

"The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons," she said. Clinton emphasized that Obama's outreach to Iran would lead to tougher consequences if progress was not made on the nuclear issue.

"We know that the forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States of America," she said, drawing another standing ovation.

Other red meat: a renewed call for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006.

Nevertheless, Clinton did not back down from the administration's objections to expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the cause of the latest flareup between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"As Israel's friend, it is our responsibility to give credit when it is due and to tell the truth when it is needed," Clinton said. She emphasized the point, but her words were received quietly.

“This was not about wounded pride nor is it a judgment about the final status of Jerusalem, which is an issue to be settled at the negotiation table,” she said of the administration’s criticism of Israel’s latest housing expansion, which had been labeled an “insult” by the administration. “This is about getting to the table, creating an atmosphere of trust around it, and staying there until the job is done.“

She offered a spirited defense of a two-state solution, and a stark vision of the consequences of failure to negotiate with the Palestinians. She called the status quo “unsustainable,” as terrorists find new and more effective weapons—like the rockets that have rained down on Israeli towns from Gaza—and spread their message to sympathizers in mass media and online. Many Israeli supporters of expanded negotiations have warned that without a Palestinian state, increasing population growth will lead to an impossible situation for Israel, forced to choose between ever more repressive measures or to become a binational state that is no longer uniquely Jewish.

"There is, I think, a belief among many that the status quo can be sustained, but the dynamics of demography, ideology, and technology make this impossible," she said. "Given this reality, a two-state solution is the only viable path for Israel to remain both a democracy and a Jewish state."

To get there, however, Clinton said Hamas must “renounce violence, recognize Israel and abide by previously signed agreements” before they are allowed at the negotiating table. But she added that by dealing with moderate Palestinians, Hamas and other extremist groups could be better marginalized.

“God bless you, God bless Israel, and God bless the United States of America,” she closed.

Clinton’s speech was warm but firm—America and Israel are clear allies, but the Obama administration will not back down from its commitment to restarting the peace process. It’s up to Netanyahu in his speech Monday night and Tuesday in his meeting with Obama, to decide whether to walk back the current tensions with a symbolic or substantive gesture on the settlement front, or if the issue is worth extending the current spat further.

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.