from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Secretary Clinton Visits Israel

July 16, 2012

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shake hands during their meeting in Jerusalem July 16, 2012 (Courtesy REUTERS/Abir Sultan/Pool).
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Secretary of State Clinton is in Israel today, which is a surprising fact. According to several news sites, she has not visited there in two years.

Secretary Condoleezza Rice visited there about 20 times, by my rough count. What accounts for this difference? Given the importance the United States usually places on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how is it that a secretary of state could be absent for two entire years?

There are two reasons, I would judge. First, President Obama has always turned to others--initially his special envoy George Mitchell, appointed on Mr. Obama’s second day in office, and later Dennis Ross--to do the diplomacy that was needed (or not needed, but that’s another story). He has never viewed Clinton as his top diplomat when it came to the Middle East.

Second, Clinton must have made a judgment a couple of years ago that visiting Israel and the West Bank was a losing proposition. After all, two years ago (in September, 2010) the White House staged an extravaganza to launch peace talks, inviting President Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan, Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu, and PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas. The talks broke down within weeks, and George Mitchell’s last trip to the region came in December 2010. It appears that Clinton looked at the wreckage and decided she had better ways to spend her time.

Is this theory contradicted by her presence in Israel today? Not really, because she was visiting Egypt’s new president and its military leadership, and because there are other hot subjects to discuss now, such as the war in Syria. And given the presence on her delegation of the administration’s Iran negotiator, Wendy Sherman, her main topics with the Israelis are likely to be Iran, Syria, and Egypt, with a discussion of Palestinian matters thrown in at the end to be sure they could all say "sure, yes, absolutely, that was discussed in depth!" But the Secretary’s attention is elsewhere, on some dangerous crises, and it is very difficult to say that her absence from Israel for two years was a mistaken decision.