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'Creating differences with Israel in public was a fairly natural part' of Obama's administration

Clinton would avoid Obama-esque spats with Israel, ex-diplomat says

Dennis Ross, who served as Mideast adviser to Bill Clinton, warns that Israel is becoming more isolated, calls for end to building outside settlement blocs

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Veteran US diplomat Dennis Ross (Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Veteran US diplomat Dennis Ross (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

A possible Hillary Clinton administration would likely see any tensions between Jerusalem and Israel kept out of the limelight, Dennis Ross, a former US diplomat and top Middle East adviser to several US presidents, said Sunday in Jerusalem.

Clinton, the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee for the November elections, can be expected to act more like her husband Bill — who avoided public tension with Jerusalem during his time in the White House — than like the incumbent Barack Obama, who intentionally created gaps between the US and Israel, Ross said.

“Hillary Clinton would more closely follow the model of her husband, as opposed to President Obama, for whom creating differences with Israel in public was a fairly natural part of his administration,” said Ross, who served as a senior Middle East adviser to both the Clinton and Bush administrations. “It was not a natural part of the Clinton administration.”

Bill Clinton, who was president from 1993 to 2001, was unique in that he felt the US was Israel’s only true friend in the world, said Ross, who served as his special adviser on the Middle East. And while there were differences with the Israeli government, Clinton believed fundamentally that any arguments “should be managed in private and shouldn’t be magnified in public,” Ross said.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gestures as she speaks during a rally in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, June 22, 2016. (AP/Chuck Burton)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gestures as she speaks during a rally in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, June 22, 2016. (AP/Chuck Burton)

“And so his instinct was to operate that way because he felt that if you create the image of a gap or wedge between the United States and Israel that would encourage Israel’s enemies, it would reduce Israel’s deterrence and it would make it more difficult to negotiate peace. I think that Hillary Clinton’s instincts make her more inclined to adopt that kind of approach than you’ve seen with President Obama,” Ross told the Jerusalem Press Club at a briefing.

Obama “has been good with security issues with Israel. But he’s also never been hesitant to create a difference with Israel in public,” he added. The current president “consciously distances” the US from Israel, hoping that such a policy would win him points in the Arab world, Ross posited.

However, such calculations — which, Ross pointed out, have been made by several presidents before Obama — never work out. “The main preoccupation of Arab leaders is not this issue [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]. It’s their security and their survival.”

Ross called on the Israeli government to enact policies that would prove its stated commitment to a two-state solution, specifically referring to settlement construction outside the settlement blocs.

“I didn’t say: Pause building in the blocs. I said: Don’t build outside the blocs. So that your settlement policy unmistakably is consistent with a two-state outcome. If you do that, you have a very good chance of preempting international moves that are likely to be seen by most Israelis as not taking account Israel’s needs or concerns at all.”

US President Barack Obama, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. (AFP/Saul Loeb)
US President Barack Obama, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

Earlier on Sunday, Ross warned the Israeli cabinet of the Jewish state’s growing international isolation, especially due to settlement activity, and recommended Israel focus on repairing its relations with its top ally, the US.

Ross addressed the cabinet’s weekly meeting in his capacity as co-chair of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), which annually briefs ministers on its findings.

“So long as Israel’s settlement activity does not appear consistent with a two-state outcome, Israel will find it difficult to blunt the delegitimization movement — and this is a factor in the new geopolitical reality.”

Ross warned that despite seemingly improved security conditions in the region for Israel over the past year — by which he might mean the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah’s entrenchment in Syria, as well as Israel’s growing relationship with its Arab neighbors despite the conflict with the Palestinians — Israel is increasingly isolated beyond the Middle East.

“As the Palestinians seek to internationalize the conflict with Israel — and as Israel fails to make its case to the Europeans and others — the threat of delegitimizing the Jewish state is growing on the international stage,” Ross said.

A bus in Denver Colorado carries an anti-Israel ad paid for by the website notaxdollarstoIsrael.com and Colorado BDS. (screen capture: notaxdollarstoisrael.com)
A bus in Denver Colorado carries an anti-Israel ad paid for by the website notaxdollarstoIsrael.com and Colorado BDS. (screen capture: notaxdollarstoisrael.com)

The US diplomat warned that the international movement calling for a boycott against Israel, known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement, “is about ending Israel’s existence, not its occupation of Palestinians. But because BDS focuses on occupation and Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, it disguises its real objective.”

The JPPI’s main recommendation to the cabinet was to take advantage of the upcoming US elections and subsequent change of administrations “to turn over a new page in its relations with the United States.”

“As the US is Israel’s and the Jewish people’s most important ally, improving this relationship should be Israel’s utmost priority. An Israeli initiative, coordinated with the new American administration, to advance toward a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the basis of two states and within a regional framework, could be a game changer,” the JPPI said in a statement.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro talks to Channel 10 television on January 29, 2016. (screen capture: Channel 10)
US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, January 29, 2016. (screen capture: Channel 10)

Earlier in June, despite American opposition to the BDS movement, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said substantive progress in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians would better combat “those who advocate isolation.”

“True supporters of BDS have an anti-Israel, and in some cases even anti-Semitic, agenda, independent of efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Shapiro said. “But we must also reach those who support a two-state solution, but who might be tempted by the misguided arguments of the BDS movement.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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