Hillary Clinton in Jerusalem: Subtle Diplomacy, Subtler Electioneering

A great deal of business was done during Clinton’s Monday in Jerusalem, ranging from Egypt to Iran and, quietly, to Florida.

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Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images

Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomes US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before their meeting on July 16, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. Clinton is in Israel to discuss diplomacy with Iran, Syria and Egypt in addition to peace talks regarding the Middle East.

“We can have a nice visit here, with no stress,” the press aide tells the camera crews along the red carpet where Israeli president Shimon Peres prepares to welcome Hillary Clinton.  The aide is talking about flow—getting a half dozen jostling video cameras through a door the width of a single person—but it could have been a motto for the day: 24 hours, five meetings and a news conference, all as glossy smooth as Clinton’s arrival at the head of the motorcade that skimmed into frame five minutes after the aide achieves red-carpet discipline. The Secretary of State gave her curls a shake, lengthened her stride and reached toward the old man walking toward her. “My friend,” she said.

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What followed might be called a working embrace. A great deal of business was done during Clinton’s Monday in Jerusalem. A significant portion related to the electoral contest heating up in Clinton’s home territory. But that business was encrypted in the to-and-fro of regional diplomacy. Most immediately, America’s top diplomat carried messages from Egypt—where she had been the day before—to an Israel that has been groping in the dark since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.  “I look forward to hearing your impressions from Egypt,” Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said before guiding her into his residence. “I think that is something that is uppermost in both our minds.”

Clinton’s impressions turned out to include a measure of alarm: she had been taken aback not so much by the demonstrators who pelted tomatoes and chanted “Monica” at her motorcade in Alexandria, but by the vehemence of the Coptic Christians who in a closed meeting called the Obama administration’s Egypt policy a plot to support Islamic fundamentalism. In Jerusalem she sought to allay these concerns, departing from her prepared remarks to insert the identifiers “Christians, Muslims and Jews” in her list of people who should be allowed to fulfill their  “God-given potential.” She also passed on—behind closed doors—the response of the newly elected president, Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood, to an invitation from Netanyahu that they meet.  Whatever Morsy said, the reach-out itself was one of those new realities unthinkable before Tahrir Square, the Brothers being the father and mother of Hamas, the militant Palestinian party at least nominally committed to Israel’s destruction.  “It’s not just leaders that have to work at it,” Clinton added, of Egypt’s shaky transition to democracy. “Citizens have to work at it. Never in the 5,000-year history of Egypt have they had this opportunity or challenge. We are going to be watching.”

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Then there was Iran.  So effectively has Israel’s hold-me-back rhetoric driven the global agenda that every visit by a U.S. official to Jerusalem is interpreted as an effort to coax Netanyahu away from ordering an air strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. And Clinton was preceded a day earlier by National security Advisory Tom Donilon, and will be followed later in the month by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The reality is a good deal more complex—consider that Israel’s missile defense batteries are linked to a U.S. radar installation in Israel’s desert south, but only Americans see what’s on the screens. But Clinton appeared determined to allow no light between Washington and Jerusalem as she echoed Netanyahu’s skeptical position on the stalemated negotiations between Tehran and the five members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany:

“As to the diplomatic track, I made very clear the proposals we have seen from Iran thus far with the P5-Plus1 negotiations are non-starters. Despite three rounds of talks it appears that Iran has yet to make a strategic decision to address the international community’s concerns to fulfill their obligations to the IAEA and the UN Security Council. I think that it’s absolutely fair to say we are on the same page at this moment, trying to figure our way forward to have the maximum impact in effecting the decision that Iran makes.”

Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya, outside Tel Aviv, decodes the statement:  “[Clinton is] telling the Iranians we and Israel are working together. And the second audience for that kind of message is Netanyahu. She’s telling Netanyahu we are together on this, and the ‘we’ comes with a capital W, and that’s the United States. The United States is leading. She’s talking to Ayatollah Khamenei and Netanyahu at the same time. The one who has the most to worry about is Khamenei because the Iranians would love to see divisions between the U.S. and Israel. They’d love to see the two countries arguing over Iran. But no one in Israel can doubt the success of Obama’s dual track against Iran. The way he has managed to build an international consensus against Iran is indisputable.”

Her words were subtle. Her silence, says Javedanfar, was at least as nuanced. On Sunday, a report emerged that Netanyahu’s government was subsidizing anew Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory on the West Bank of the Jordan River—reversing a pledge not to do so (the settlements are illegal under international law).  The AP report revealing the switch speculated that the action “could cloud” the Clinton visit.  It did not. Clinton spoke only of the need to renew peace talks with the Palestinians, and in bland, dutiful terms: “The United States will continue showing up,” she said, “as we have for many years now.”

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Compare that with the diplomatic brouhaha that erupted in 2010 when Israel announced settlement construction during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden—an awkwardness the New York Times captured in a front page photo of a dinner delayed while the U.S. considered ending the whole visit early. But 2012 is an election year, and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, has announced plans to visit Israel later in the month, even holding a fundraiser. “I think the Democrats are basically trying to show the pro-Israel card,” says Javendanfar, who tells TIME it’s hard to imagine Netanyahu’s government getting such an easy ride from the Obama administration after an election. “This time the Americans look the other way, and I think that’s what really showed that Hillary Clinton’s visit is also about the elections. To win the states of Ohio and Florida, you have to win the State of Israel.”