Posted on Mar 31, 2016
By Sandy Tolan
Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in Israel. (The Israel Project / CC BY-SA 2.0)
This article is the fifth in “Beholden,” a seven-part series about the presidential candidates on Israel and Palestine.
Back in her radical pro-Palestinian days, Hillary Clin … wait, her what?
Take two. Back in 1999, before neutrality on Israel/Palestine was deemed radically treasonous by America’s billionaire presidential anointers, Hillary Clinton actually spoke warmly of Palestinian aspirations. On a visit to the West Bank, she shocked pro-Israel enforcers by kissing the cheek of the Other, Yasser Arafat’s wife, Suha, who had denounced Israel’s military domination of the Palestinians. The kiss was essentially diplomatic behavior by the then-first lady, but it rattled the enforcers, already skittish about Clinton after her shocking use of the actual word “Palestine” and her endorsement, a year earlier, of an independent state of that name.
Soon Clinton would be atoning for these sins as a candidate for the United States Senate from New York—the first corrective step in a steady rightward march toward military intervention, war under false pretense, support for a military coup against a democratically elected president, a $29 billion weapons deal that benefited million-dollar donors to the Clinton Foundation, warm relations with accused war criminals then and now, and the embrace of a billionaire benefactor hell-bent on shutting down open discussion of Israel’s human rights disaster in the Israeli-occupied territories.
Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign reveals the roots of her current fealty to Israel. Lickety-split, she abandoned any pretense of support for Palestinians. She advocated moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv—anathema to Palestinians, who wish to make their capital in East Jerusalem. She even attacked her Republican Senate opponent for once shaking hands with Arafat. (A handshake is worse than a kiss, I guess.)
As secretary of state, Clinton did carry the weakly flickering torch of the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, which by then was long-established U.S. policy. She issued mild, diplo-speak criticism that Israel’s settlement building “undermines mutual trust.” (Well, yes, I guess the American failure to stop Israel from more than tripling the West Bank settler population in the “Oslo era”—from 109,000 in 1993 to some 380,000 today—might slightly undermine trust in America’s professed solution.) She also allowed that Israeli military demolitions of Palestinian homes—the numbers are in the tens of thousands—are “unhelpful.” (And, yes, getting your home smashed to pieces by American-made Caterpillar bulldozers can, indeed, be quite unhelpful.) In 2010 she “yelled” at Benjamin Netanyahu on the phone after Vice President Joe Biden, in Israel, had pledged America’s “absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security,” only to learn hours later of Israel’s plan to build 1,600 new housing units in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. Oops.
But Clinton’s dressing-down of the Israeli prime minister was more a matter of timing and American pride than a policy rift. Though it’s to her credit that in her 2014 memoir, “Hard Choices,” she acknowledged the hardships of Palestinian “life under occupation,” as secretary of state she did her best to stop Palestinian aspirations to establish their own state, blocking even mild United Nations resolutions that would label Israeli settlements illegal.
For the last 18 years, then, we have witnessed Hillary Clinton’s hawkish march—from her 20th century air kiss of a former Palestinian first lady, and apparently sincere support for a state called Palestine—to her current role as Hillsrael, the Israel-can-do-no-wrong panderer-in-chief.
I hereby present you with the 2016 campaign’s Best of Clinton:
A promise to invite Netanyahu to the White House “during my first month in office” in order to “reaffirm” the “unbreakable bond with Israel”—no matter the prime minister’s attempts to embarrass and undermine President Obama by trying to scuttle the Iran deal. Or worse, Netanyahu’s devastation of Gaza during the summer of 2014, in which 521 children died, 108,000 Gazans lost their homes, 18,000 buildings were badly damaged or destroyed, and Israel’s destructive power, compared to all the rockets launched by Hamas, was an estimated 1,500 to 1.
Virtual silence on the settlement issue in a speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 conference. During the event, even Biden—he of the “absolute, total, unvarnished” support for Israel—decried the “steady and systematic process of expanding settlements.” By contrast, Clinton’s speech, a “symphony of craven, delusional pandering,” as Slate’s Michelle Goldberg put it, mentioned settlements only in the context of protecting Israel against its own violation of international law.
An attack on Donald Trump from the right by denouncing Trump’s once-expressed wish to remain “neutral” over Israel/Palestine. “We need steady hands, not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday, and who-knows-what on Wednesday, because everything’s negotiable,” Clinton told the AIPAC gathering.
Unilateral condemnation of recent Palestinian aggression that has killed 28 Israelis. “Israel faces brutal terrorist stabbings, shootings and vehicle attacks at home,” she said at AIPAC. “Palestinian leaders need to stop inciting violence.” Yet she had not one word for the 188 Palestinians killed during the same period, some of them in extrajudicial executions by the Israeli military, including here, here and here. Nor did she utter the word “occupation,” under which Palestinians have been living for nearly half a century, and which has created a Jim Crow-like inequality that reminded then-Archbishop Desmond Tutu of apartheid South Africa.
Equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, largely through condemnation of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), a nonviolent movement to confront Israel’s human rights abuses through direct economic and political pressure. (Would she prefer suicide bombers and rockets?) Never mind that the relatively modest movement has been endorsed by an assortment of international trade unions, scholarly associations, church groups, Jewish Voice for Peace and Tutu himself. At the root of BDS, Clinton hints darkly, is anti-Semitism. “At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world,” Clinton wrote in a letter to donor Haim Saban, “we need to repudiate forceful efforts to malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people.”
This last item takes the pandering cake. Clinton aims to silence free speech and legitimate criticism of Israel, thus advancing deeply repressive and undemocratic policies—but only when the target is Israel. Why, as a candidate for American and not Israeli office, is she taking up this fight? In this case, Clinton’s cynical pandering was written at the behest of one of her biggest donors, the Israeli-American businessman and Hollywood mogul Saban (“I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel”). It was Saban—whose main claim to fame is the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers franchise—who last year convened a “secret” Las Vegas meeting with fellow billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the bankroller of GOP candidates and huge supporter of Israel’s settlement project. Their aim: to shut down, if not criminalize BDS.
A few weeks later, with Saban’s $6.4 million destined for Clinton’s campaign war chest, the candidate wrote to her benefactor to express her “alarm” over BDS, “seeking your thoughts and recommendations” to “work together to counter BDS.” There is no record of Saban’s response, but in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, he recommended Muslim communities in the U.S. receive “more scrutiny.” On the plus side, he was “not suggesting we put Muslims through some kind of a torture room,” proving he was channeling not Mussolini but simply Ted Cruz. What a relief. Saban later claimed he “misspoke,” but I’m skeptical: “More scrutiny” is more scrutin
But it is not only Saban and fellow Hollywood titans Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg who are pouring their millions into Clinton’s campaign. Now neoconservative money is increasing for Clinton as well. Her hardline stance on Israel, combined with her history of advocating military intervention in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East, has brought early endorsements from prominent neocons Robert Kagan, one of the architects of the Iraq war, and Max Boot, the superhawk who called Clinton “a principled voice for a strong stand on controversial issues.” This from a man who believes the U.S. should “unambiguously embrace its imperial role” around the world. Trump’s unpredictability scares the neocons, and should he get the Republican nomination, many of them will flock to Clinton, provided she is the nominee. This says as much about Clinton, and whom she appeals to, as it does about Trump. And there is no one she appeals to more, and who has helped her more, than Haim Saban.
As for Saban: How, you may ask, does a man who made his money from a children’s television series get to be this influential? “Make donations to political parties, establish think tanks, and control media outlets,” according to Connie Bruck’s 2010 New Yorker profile of Saban. Thus, when you make your billions from Power Rangers, you get to buy a controlling share of Univision, donate $7 million to the Democratic Party and $10 million to the Bill Clinton Presidential Library and the Clinton Foundation, bankroll Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, call up the Brookings Institution and establish a “Center for Middle East Policy” in your name, and introduce your favorite candidate when she comes to speak at your center. Then you can sit back, relax and enjoy as she pledges to “rededicate and renew our great alliance,” while hammering on your enemy, BDS.
“We need to repudiate efforts to malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people,” Clinton told the Saban Forum in December, conflating Jews and Israel as if they were the same. (They’re not: 20 percent of Israel’s population is Arab, and some of Israel’s fiercest and most eloquent critics are Jews.) “Comparing Israel to South African apartheid,” Clinton continued, “is wrong and should stop immediately.” (Can someone get Tutu on the phone? The Nobel Peace Prize people may have his number. While you’re at it, get Jimmy Carter’s number, too.)
With this Clinton speech, and so many others, it’s no wonder Saban’s nickname is The Influencer. As a bonus, he can rest assured The Onion won’t make fun of him, or of Hillary. His Univision bought 40 percent of the media company in January. For years, he’s looked lustily at the Los Angeles Times, too, wanting to transform it from a “pro-Palestinian” paper to something more “balanced.” So far, no luck.
Like Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, Farris and Dan Wilks and the other billionaire kingmakers of the GOP, Saban represents the kind of money and power now drawn to Hillary Clinton. At the heart of that appeal is her ever-hardening position on Israel/Palestine. Perhaps Saban was repulsed 17 years ago, back when the first ladies of America and Palestine air-kissed in the occupied territories. But even then, Saban, the neocons and the hawkish advocates of American military intervention need not have worried. Even then, it seems, Hillsrael had a plan.
As it turns out, a kiss was just a kiss.