Is Clinton Being A Little Too Pro-Israel?

Last year, Bill Clinton became the first President to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual Policy Conference. I criticized him afterward for missing a great opportunity to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship, and his own pro-Israel credentials, by announcing some new initiatives. Clinton returned to the AIPAC event this year, but didn’t make the same mistake. Still, even as he was saying the words everyone in the audience wanted to hear, I could not help feeling a little uncomfortable about his actions, which reminded me of a far less sympathetic President, George Bush.

First, the good news. In his AIPAC speech, Clinton announced that earlier in the day, Defense Secretary William Perry and Prime Minister Shimon Peres had signed an agreement to expand the two countries’ theater missile defense program, which is designed to detect and destroy incoming missiles. He also said the U.S. and Israel are proceeding with the deployment of the Arrow missile program. He pledged to expand work on the Nautilus high-energy laser system. The President also said the Israeli Air Force should receive its first F-15I fighters next year and that Israel had been offered our most advanced air-to-air missile, the AMRAAM. Among the other examples Clinton cited of his Administration’s advancement of the relationship were maintaining Israel’s aid package, training Israeli astronauts, selling Israel supercomputers and sending new equipment to detect explosives to Israel.

In a joint statement two days later, the two leaders announced that a committee had been created to “explore the means of enhancing and, where appropriate, formalizing” strategic cooperation. They also signed a U.S.-Israel Counter-Terrorism Cooperation Accord.

In truth, most of this was old news. Perhaps the most important decision was negative; that is, not to sign a formal defense treaty. Peres had been lobbying for a stronger U.S. commitment, but received only marginal advances in strategic cooperation. Perry’s promise of nearly instantaneous information from American satellites was probably the most important of these, but it still fell far short of the NATO-like defense guarantee Peres had been seeking.

Clinton’s contribution to the U.S.-Israel relationship goes well beyond these tangible promises of money and hardware. Paradoxically, his words may be more important than his deeds. In general, he has been consistently supportive of Israel in all his public remarks. Not once during his entire Administration did he criticize Israel for any action.

The best example occurred just before the AIPAC conference when Israel’s military campaign against Hezbollah turned into a public relations debacle after the shelling of the Qana refugee camp. The Administration, which had been wholeheartedly supporting the Israeli operation, was forced by the international uproar to pressure Israel to accept a cease-fire, but Clinton never criticized the Israelis. Here’s what he told the AIPAC audience: “...we grieve for the innocent victims...for the Lebanese children in Qana who were caught between — make no mistake about it — the deliberate tactics of Hezbollah in their positioning and firing, and the tragic misfiring in Israel’s legitimate exercise of its right to self-defense.”

Astounding! Finally, a President who understands Israel’s predicament. Imagine the reaction of his predecessor.

So why did I begin this essay saying that Clinton’s behavior reminded me of the most anti-Israel President in history? The reason is that the Administration has made no secret of its effort to sway the Israeli election in favor of Peres. Bush set this negative precedent in 1992 when he did everything but take an ad out in Ha’aretz saying the U.S.-Israel relationship would be jeopardized by the reelection of Yitzhak Shamir.

I have no problem with a U.S. President helping Israel to try to win Jewish votes in America, that’s just good politics, but it’s disturbing when he does it to influence the outcome in Israel. So long as Israeli candidates stand for the democratic principles America espouses, as Bibi Netanyahu clearly does, we have no business taking measures to interfere in the Israeli elections. Responsible Jewish leaders should make this point to the President.

As President Clinton told AIPAC, “the United States and Israel are still partners based on shared values and common strategies.” That will be true no matter who wins the Israeli election. Regardless of the results, I hope the President will continue — in words and deeds — to be the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House.