Israel Election Result Complicates Life for Clinton – NYTimes.com
WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in this week’s Israeli elections has reverberated through American politics, reinforcing Republican faith in the political wisdom of a hawkish foreign policy, worsening his relationship with President Obama, and energizing liberal critics of Israel’s government. But mostly it has complicated the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
As she moves closer to making her campaign for president official, Mrs. Clinton now faces a deepening polarization among Jewish Democrats over Mr. Netanyahu and how the United States should deal with his government.
Mrs. Clinton, the former secretary of state who has long advocated a two-state solution and once took credit for starting what were then secret talks for an Iran nuclear deal that Mr. Netanyahu vehemently opposes, is now likely to be under increased pressure from her own party to speak up against a government that is openly hostile to Mr. Obama. But if she criticizes Israel, she risks prompting an influential segment of more conservative Jewish Democrats to withhold their support from her presidential campaign, or even to defect to a Republican candidate in 2016.
“Everyone is now going to have to pick a side,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a liberal Jewish lobby that has supported Mr. Obama’s positions on Israel and is hosting its annual conference this weekend. That included the woman at “the forefront” of the Democratic Party, he said, who would undergo “more and more pressure.”
In contrast to virtually the entire field of prospective Republican candidates who heaped praise on Mr. Netanyahu, Mrs. Clinton has declined to comment on the Israeli election. Reporters on Thursday were kept away from the car that took her to Atlantic City for a paid speech to the American Camp Association.
Until this point, Mrs. Clinton has essentially shrugged off the anguish of liberal supporters of Israel who are appalled by Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing government, and ignored the emboldened fringe of progressive Jews who have advocated boycotting Israel to protest its settlement growth and wars in Gaza.
Last summer she made light of her time as Mr. Obama’s “designated yeller” at the State Department, a title she earned in part by upbraiding Mr. Netanyahu in 2010 after he announced new settlements during a visit by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
She then articulated a vigorous defense of Israel during last summer’s war in Gaza and since then has generally avoided public displays of empathy for the Palestinian losses that upset her liberal Jewish supporters. “If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security” on the West Bank, she told The Atlantic in August.
Such muscular remarks about the defense of Israel are standard procedure for a Democratic presidential candidate. The overwhelming percentage of Jewish voters, and donors, are liberal and will never vote for a Republican. The progressives who are bothered by Israel’s conservative government care a lot more about other issues, such as the economy and social issues. Support for the government is strong among what people close to Mrs. Clinton estimate to be about a 10 percent sliver of wealthy and influential moderate Democratic Jews for whom Israel is a priority, and could be a reason to withhold their financial backing, if not support a Republican candidate.
But the anger generated by Mr. Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress and the other events that led up to his re-election will probably mean that more Democrats will be less willing to bite their tongues when it comes to criticizing his government. A statement on Thursday by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which is traditionally a reliable defender of the Israeli government, condemned the prime minister’s campaign position. That suggests an expanded space, and perhaps tolerance, for criticism of Israel and another consideration for Mrs. Clinton as she formulates her response. “This isn’t going away,” acknowledged one person close to Mrs. Clinton.
Not everyone subscribed to the notion that Jewish Democrats were torn over Mr. Netanyahu. Josh Block, president of the Israel Project, a pro-Israeli education group in Washington, blamed the Obama administration for manufacturing the tension to distract from the nuclear negotiations and accused progressive partisans of trying to “exploit and exaggerate the tensions for their own political gains.”
Still, Jewish elected officials in the Democratic Party describe a nightmare scenario in which traditional supporters of Israel will receive primary challenges from candidates now openly critical of the Israeli government. Polls show that Israel is increasingly unpopular with African-American, Latino and young voters — a key portion of the Democratic base. Officials fear that an erosion of support for Israel in the party could cause insecurity among Jewish voters, forcing them to seek comfort in the eager embrace of the Republican Party.
This is the stuff of dreams for Republicans. For them, and especially the party’s neoconservatives, Mr. Netanyahu’s victory was a good omen.
“It will strengthen the hawkish types in the Republican Party,” said William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, who said that Mr. Netanyahu would win the party’s nomination, if he could run, because “Republican primary voters are at least as hawkish as the Israeli public.”
Would-be candidates responded accordingly.
In a statement released after Mr. Netanyahu’s victory, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin congratulated the prime minister on a victory that was “especially remarkable in light of the Obama administration’s attempts to undermine him.”
Former Gov. Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida paid lip service to the two-state solution, only to argue that its pursuit should be put off. “The conditions don’t exist right now for that solution to truly take hold,” Mr. Rubio said.
Potential candidates appealing to right-wing Jewish Republican megadonors like Sheldon Adelson or a base of conservative evangelicals, many of whom believe Israel has a biblically rooted right to the occupied territories, did not mention the two-state solution. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, for example, praised Mr. Netanyahu for defeating “the full force of the Obama political team.”
And he happily exploited the bind in which Mr. Netanyahu’s rejection of the two-state solution and apparent race-baiting on the campaign trail had put Mrs. Clinton.
“When it comes to Israel, the time for her to stand up is now,” he said, adding that if Mrs. Clinton disagreed with Mr. Obama’s Iran nuclear negotiations, “she needs to state so clearly and unequivocally right now.”