Sunday, March 21, 2010


Tomorrow, as Paul Adams observed in his From Our Own Correspondent report for BBC News, is the day when both Hillary Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu will make their speeches to the annual AIPAC conference in Washington. How either of these speeches will play to this particular audience is hard to predict. I doubt that there will be any surprises from Netanyahu, since about the only thing he seems to feel deserves apology over his recent activities, particularly regarding plans for Ramat Shlomo, is the bad timing of his announcement of those plans. The real question is what Clinton will say. Will she maintain the message of the strong rhetoric fired in response to Netanyahu's "bad timing," making it clear that, when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East, the major priority of the United States is the effort to redeem its reputation as an "honest broker;" or will she defuse her rhetoric to the pandering style invoked when she was campaigning for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 Presidential election?

Perhaps equally important is how the AIPAC audience will react. The official reaction to the initial salvo of strong rhetoric was a rather guarded statement about taking "immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State;" but they have subsequently ramped up their criticism of the Administration position. This had the short-term effect of Clinton endorsing relations between the United States and Israel as an "unshakable bond." My guess is that, officially, this is the language that AIPAC wants to hear; and, among those who would like to bet on what happens in AIPAC (rather than, say, the NCAA Tournament), the smart money will probably go for the unshakable bond rhetoric.

This time around, however, there is a new joker in the deck (to shift the metaphor from basketball to poker). His name is David Petraeus, and his card is in Clinton's current hand. We know the card exists because he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, and Adams felt that his testimony was worth including in his BBC report. He is how Adams summarized how the chips are currently falling on the table:

There might be another reason for AIPAC delegates to feel uneasy this year.

That's because America's best known general, David Petraeus, has, in the words of one commentator, "discovered the Holy Land". And it's bothering him.

In a statement to the Senate's Armed Services Committee this week, he said that a perception of American favouritism for Israel was fomenting anti-American sentiment.

Hardly a novel observation but for the most influential general of recent times to say, publicly, that his job, in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not being helped, that American lives are being endangered, by the widespread bitterness engendered by an unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict... Now that is highly unusual.

And as Mark Perry of the website Foreign Policy put it, the Pentagon is the most powerful lobby in America.

Given his position, Petraeus is less concerned about being an honest broker in diplomacy and more worried about having a strategic advantage. Since he has been pretty good about straight talk, he had no problem calling attention to the dead moose on the table having to do with how Israel could pose a strategic liability. Also, in terms of taking a more general view of defusing hot spots, it is important to remember that the last Iranian leader to recognize Israel was the Shah; and it is hard to believe that, regardless of who is in power, the Iranian population would look favorably upon any of the overthrown Shah's policies or ideas.

Will this card in Clinton's hand have any effect on AIPAC audience response? My guess is that Netanyahu will take his usual defiant stand and draw the usual cheers from the crowd; and the best that Clinton can hope for, should she continue with the hang-tough rhetoric, will be polite silence. In this setting that is at least a great improvement over loud choruses of boos (and I would hope that this would be the worst that things would get). Hopefully, Clinton will appreciate that she is tough enough to stand up to a hostile crowd, even if she cannot sway that crowd over to her side. If she can do just that much, then the reestablishment of our honest-broker reputation may still be on track; and, given that hostilities appear to be surfacing in Gaza again, that reestablishment could not come too soon.

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