A Note to Hillary on Boycotts and Settlements

AP Photo/Jin Lee

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks after receiving the American Jewish Congress' lifetime achievement award on Wednesday, March 19, 2014, in New York. 

Dear Hillary,

It's hard to believe a whole eight years have gone by. Again, you're running for president. Again, you've made an early policy statement intended to prove your support for Israel, written to fit the catechism of the self-proclaimed guardians of the pro-Israel faith.

And again, as I watch the bizarre rites of American politics from the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, I feel uneasy. Do you believe what you are saying and implying to donors and voters? Do you intend to act accordingly as president? Today, with the State Department as well as the Senate on your résumé, surely you know that American policy commitments—and your actual support for livable future for Israel—will take you in a different direction.

You've been through this. Eight years ago, early in your last campaign, you issued a policy paper swearing fealty to "an undivided Jerusalem as [Israel's] capital," the myth promoted by veteran pro-Israel lobbying groups. (J Street, which takes a different position, was only founded in 2008.) As I wrote to you then, the myth has nothing to do with the real Jerusalem, which remains two tenuously connected cities, Jewish and Arab. The real Jerusalem will necessarily be divided between Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty in the two-state outcome that the United States has sought since the administration of a previous Clinton.

As secretary of state, you wisely jettisoned the myth. Like your predecessors, you refused to register the place of birth of U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem as Israel. You regarded a 2002 Congressional measure requiring the State Department do so as non-binding. A Supreme Court brief filed in your name said that the United States did not recognize Israel's 1967 annexation of Jerusalem, and could not recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital until Israelis and Palestinians reached an agreement on the city's future. You found that you could see things from the executive branch that you hadn't seen as a senator and presidential candidate. Despite shrill criticism, you took the responsible position, and at long last the Supreme Court has upheld it.

Now you've set the tone of your new campaign with a letter to billionaire giga-donor Haim Saban, made public this week. In it, you promise to work against boycotts of Israel. That sounds reasonable. But given the timing, I strongly suspect that you're trying to fudge what you mean by boycotts.

Just last week, President Barack Obama signed new trade legislation—which includes a stealth provision backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In free-trade talks with the European Union, the clause requires U.S. diplomats to oppose boycotts of "Israel or persons doing business in Israel or Israeli-controlled territories" [emphasis added]. Just as Congress tried in 2002 to force recognition of Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem, this law attempts to force the administration to treat West Bank settlements as part of Israel. The law equates a boycott of the settlements with a boycott of Israel itself.

Obama wasn't going to veto the whole bill over those few words. But via the State Department spokesperson, the administration announced that it would have none of this. It will oppose boycotts of Israel, but will uphold America's consistent opposition to "Israeli settlement activity beyond the 1967 lines."

The point of contention here, as you know, is the gradually developing European Union policy of economic sanctions against the settlements. As a political ally, Europe is nearly as important to Israel as the United States is; as a trading partner, it's more important. But European governments don't want their friendship with Israel to be misconstrued as acceptance of Israeli rule of the West Bank. The sanctions are meant to convey this point, and to push Israel to seek a two-state agreement. In contrast to boycotts of Israel as such, the European policy reflects the commitment of allies to Israel's future. Congress tried to force the administration to tell the European Union, "Don't do it." The Obama administration answered that it won't get in the way.

Issued at this moment, and lacking nuance, your letter to Saban gives the impression that you regard all boycotts as the same. You're trying to reassure donors who are hawkish on Israel and liberal on other matters. I'd like to be confident that as president, you'd maintain the Obama administration's stance. Until you clarify the point, I have to suspect of you either of dissimulating or of irresponsibility.

In your letter to Saban, you also say that you're

very concerned by attempts to compare Israel to South African apartheid... Particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world—especially in Europe—we need to repudiate the forceful efforts to malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people. After all, it was only six months ago that four Jews were targeted and killed in a kosher supermarket in Paris as they did their Sabbath shopping.

I'll agree that equating Israeli policies in occupied territory with apartheid is intellectually sloppy. Permanent occupation accompanied by settlement is unjust and undemocratic in its very own way. As Israel's former justice minister, Tzipi Livni, caustically wrote on her Facebook page last year, "This isn't South Africa—here the Palestinians aren't second-class citizens, they just aren't citizens at all." Livni was criticizing a policy she sees as undemocratic, and the uselessness of PR campaigns against boycotts as long as Israel isn't doing everything possible to reach a two-state agreement. Do you really mean to link criticism such as hers with anti-Semitism and with a terror attack in Paris?

You write to Saban that you "remain convinced that Israel's long-term security and future as a Jewish state depends on having two states for two people." But that, you say, can only be achieved in direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and "cannot be imposed from the outside." Honestly, I don't see how the pieces fit together here, at least as long as Benjamin Netanyahu remains Israel's prime minister. When Netanyahu said before the Israeli election in March that there'd be no Palestinian state on his watch, the only people who even pretended to be surprised were in Washington. As president, you're likely to face a choice. If you are unwilling to join Europe in imposing a solution, you'll be choosing to sacrifice "Israel's long-term security" and any chance of rebuilding its democracy.

Hillary, I understand that you need to satisfy donors and swing voters. Someone like me, who lives far away and will merely bear the impact of decisions you make as president, hardly matters. Still, I'd like to know: As president, will you draw the distinction between Israel and the settlements, between boycotting one and boycotting the other? Will you treat criticism of Israeli policy as anti-Semitism or as a necessary corrective? Will you be ready to confront Israel's government for the sake of Israel's future, or will you prefer to keep the donors happy for 2020?

Your letter may answer all the questions that Saban has. It doesn't answer mine. Frankly, it makes me nervous.

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