Will Palestinians hit Hillary’s glass ceiling?

Newly appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with President-elect Barack Obama in Chicago, 1 December 2008. (Anne Ryan/Sipa Press)

It is difficult to recall a US secretary of state who embodied the ideals of the position: the promotion of dialogue and privileging of diplomacy. Unfortunately, US President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee, Hillary Clinton, is not likely to restore these ideals to the office. Clinton has long championed military action against the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and has promised to “obliterate” Iran if the state launched a nuclear strike against Israel.

Clinton’s hawkish positions don’t give Palestinians much reason for optimism; her bias towards Israeli state policy has been made abundantly clear during her eight years as New York senator. While this is not unusual for an American legislator, nor for a secretary of state, it merits further skepticism of Obama’s promise for change, particularly when it comes to US foreign policy.

As demonstrated by the evolution of Obama’s campaign (always distancing itself from Obama’s March 2008 assertion that “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people”), those who aspire to national office are forced to placate or champion Israel.

In their book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt chart a similar course for Hillary Clinton, who once publicly supported Palestinian national aspirations. However, she changed course after she was met with protests upon embracing Suha Arafat (wife of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat) in 1998 while she was First Lady:

“Clinton became an ardent defender of Israel once she began running for office herself, and she now gets strong backing, including financial support, from pro-Israel organizations and individuals. After Clinton appeared at a pro-Israel rally in July 2006 and expressed strong support for Israel’s highly destructive war against Lebanon, Helen Freedman, executive director of the hard-line Americans for a Safe Israel, declared, ‘I thought her remarks were very good, especially in light of her history, and we can’t forget her kiss to Suha.’”

The Suha Arafat controversy was significant enough to warrant discussion in Clinton’s 2003 autobiography, Living History, in which she contends that members of her diplomatic delegation did not hear the English translation of Suha Arafat’s “outrageous remark suggesting that Israel had used poison gas to control Palestinians.” Clinton claims that had she been aware of Arafat’s words, she “would have denounced them on the spot.” After New York City tabloids published the photos of their embrace, “Many Jewish voters were understandably upset with Mrs. Arafat’s comments and disappointed that I had not taken the opportunity to disavow her remarks. My campaign eventually overcame the fallout, but I had learned a hard lesson about the hazards of merging my role in the international diplomatic arena with the complexities of local New York politics.”

Indeed, Clinton learned to attack Palestinian claims and accept Israel’s line without question. Shortly after her election in 2000, Clinton aligned herself with figures who fed her fabricated reports about Palestinian textbooks which smeared Palestinians for “inciting” violence. At a 2001 press conference Clinton obediently stated that Palestinian Authority textbooks (never mind that the books in question were actually Jordanian and Egyptian) contained “anti-Semitic rhetoric,” arguing that these textbooks were teaching Palestinians “hatred.”

Clinton continued to concern herself with Palestinian education — of course, fixating on Palestinian textbooks rather than Israeli violations of Palestinians’ education rights. In press conferences, speeches, and official Senate subcommittee hearings throughout the last eight years, Clinton has propagated reports by the Israeli group Palestinian Media Watch (video of Clinton is featured on the home page of the organization’s website). The group’s director, Itamar Marcus, resides in the illegal settlement of Efrat, built on land stolen from the Palestinian village al-Khader. Not incidentally, Israeli-fired gas canisters have caused al-Khader’s residents to become clinically ill, requiring hospitalization (see Jonathan Cook, “Vale of Tears,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 5-11 April 2001).

The Palestinian Authority began updating the textbooks irrespective of the controversy, although under Israel’s microscope, yet the controversy raged on. Clinton continued to trot out materials from Marcus in Senate hearings and ignore independent investigations that found no evidence of the hatred alleged by Marcus’ organization. Furthermore, each year that Clinton addresses the conferences of the hawkish groups AIPAC (the Israeli lobby organization) and the Anti-Defamation League, she reiterates claims about fighting “hatred,” “incitement” and “propaganda.” Clinton’s statements have gone unchallenged even though they are libelous and have the effect of equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and foment anti-Palestinian sentiments in the US.

As secretary of state, Clinton will be responsible for negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, yet her history gives no reason to believe she will be effective in this role. If Clinton’s trip to Palestine and Israel in 2005 is any indication, she will have an even more hard-lined approach to the so-called “peace process” than did her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice. One example can be gleaned from a diary Clinton kept when she saw Israel’s wall being built on West Bank land:

“The top priority of any government is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens, and that is why I have been a strong supporter of Israel’s right to build a security barrier to keep terrorists out. I have taken the International Court of Justice to task for questioning Israel’s right to build the fence, and on this trip, I wanted to see the fence with my own eyes. … I stood on a hilltop in Gilo and received a detailed briefing from Col. Danny Tirza who oversees the Israeli government’s strategy and construction of the security fence.”

Problematically for someone who should uphold international law, Clinton viewed Israel’s Apartheid Wall — which she calls a “fence” in keeping with Israeli spin — from the illegal settlement Gilo. Her perception was further distorted by her unwillingness to see the devastating impact this wall has had on the communities of Bethlehem whose land has been confiscated for its construction — let alone how Palestinian life is crippled by the wall’s accompanying infrastructure of checkpoints and Jewish-only roads which violate Palestinians’ freedom of movement. Moreover, Clinton’s utter disregard for the International Court of Justice’s 2004 advisory opinion, which stated that Israel’s building of the wall on Palestinian land is illegal, is deeply troubling for a secretary of state.

It is difficult to see how an Obama administration including Clinton will bring change to US foreign policy towards Israel and the Palestinians. In her eight years as senator, not once did Clinton condemn Israel for its bombing of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure in the summer of 2006, nor for its continued incursions into the West Bank, nor its ongoing siege on Gaza. There is an obvious double standard here, and it’s at the expense of the Palestinians.

Dr. Marcy Newman is Associate Professor of English at An Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine. Her writing may be found at bodyontheline.wordpress.com.