The Myth of Clinton’s Friendship

For eight years it was common to refer to Bill Clinton as the best friend Israel ever had in the White House. After George Bush, perhaps it was easy to get carried away, but the reality was that the Clinton Administration’s policies toward Israel were far less impressive than advertised.

The main reason Clinton was viewed as such a great friend was the tone he adopted early in his administration and pursued for most of his term. Unlike their predecessors, the Clinton team did not feel the need to publicly rebuke the Israelis at every turn. Disagreements did arise, but with rare exceptions they were handled privately.

Clinton also had a genuine warmth toward Israel and, especially, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. That personal attachment, shared perhaps only by Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman (and definitely not by George W), assured that U.S. policy would remain on an even keel and never tilt against Israel.

Substantively, however, Clinton was a disappointment. He started out with great promise, introducing a new U.S.-Israel Science & Technology Commission. The USISTC ended up giving out a handful of grants and becoming virtually invisible shortly after its formation. Eight years later that remained the only innovation in the relationship.

The lack of new programs was particularly disturbing given the number of Jews in the administration. Much has been written about the absence of Jews in the new administration, but the expectation that the presence of Jews in the cabinet and subcabinet of all the major bureaucracies under Clinton would lead to greater cooperation in fields like education, energy, social services and environmental protection never materialized.

Foreign aid continued to flow and the administration began to implement the Israelis’ proposal to reduce economic assistance while increasing military aid. At one point, Albright reportedly wanted to cut Israel’s aid further, but that never happened. Clinton also waived some of the deductions from the loan guarantees Bush had imposed to punish Israel for its settlement policy. Clinton also tried to give Israel a going away present of a supplemental foreign aid package to compensate for its sacrifices, but failed to get it through Congress.

A major letdown was Clinton’s failure to strengthen strategic cooperation with Israel. This is a key pillar in the informal alliance and Israel hoped to sign a new agreement before Clinton left office that would have significantly upgraded the strategic relationship, but the administration balked.

Clinton was committed to the peace process, but here, too, his achievements were exaggerated. A milestone was reached when Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, but this had little to do with American diplomacy. Clinton also made no headway toward ending the violence provoked by Hizballah in Lebanon. Like their predecessors, Clinton’s diplomats were bamboozled by Hafez Assad, who convinced them of his interest in peace, but died without ever offering a single concession to Israel.

The administration was left out of the Oslo process and then desperately tried to take credit for it and all that came afterward. As in prior administrations, Clinton’s peace team appeared so determined to reach an agreement that this became an end in itself. To get to that agreement, they were willing to ignore the Palestinians’ violations of agreements and to put most of their emphasis on pressuring Israel to capitulate to Arab demands. In the end, Barak himself, offered much more than even the Americans expected, but Clinton still couldn’t resist putting forward his own plan rather than allowing the parties to negotiate an agreement themselves. Israel withdrew from most of the West Bank and Gaza on Clinton’s watch, but the United States did little to make it more secure afterward.

The person who had said during his first campaign he supported a united Jerusalem and moving the U.S. embassy, ultimately refused to accept a congressional mandate to move the embassy and proposed a division of the city. Instead of peace with the Palestinians, Clinton left office during a new paroxysm of violence. Instead of a new Middle East, the region was headed backward with talk of renewed boycotts against Israel and threats of war.

Bill Clinton was a friend of Israel, but to call him the best friend Israel has ever had is to lower the standard to a point where George W. Bush can aspire to match him.