Hillary Clinton Defends Israel’s Right to Defend Itself

August 11, 2014

6 min read

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady, Secretary of State and US Senator, weighed in on a number of foreign policy issues facing the United States today.

She offered her critique of US President Barack Obama’s approach to the crisis in Syria, as well as her support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his decisions in the current Gaza conflict.  In the estimation of interviewer Jeffrey Goldberg, she also indicated she plans to run for president in the next election.

The interview opened with a discussion of the current nuclear negotiations with Iran. Clinton took a no-nonsense position: “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment. Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right.”

Although no longer a part of the negotiating team, Clinton feels strongly that Iran must not be allowed to enrich uranium that could be weaponized.  Acknowledging that there must be some room for negotiation, she said, “We know what ‘no’ means. If we’re talking a little, we’re talking about a discrete, constantly inspected number of centrifuges. ‘No’ is my preference.”

Israeli Merkava tanks pull back from the Gaza Strip near the border with Israel on August 3, 2014. Ground troops withdrew from the Gaza Strip as Israel wrapped up an operation to destroy tunnels, but airstrikes continued, killing at least 15 Palestinians. A military official said that most combat troops were back in Israeli territory by the morning. (Photo: Flash90)
Israeli Merkava tanks pull back from the Gaza Strip near the border with Israel on August 3, 2014. (Photo: Flash90)

When asked about the current surge of violence between Gaza and Israel, Clinton said she was surprised the calm of 2012 lasted as long as it did.  She placed the responsibility for the situation squarely on Hamas.

Goldberg pressed Clinton on whether or not Israel’s response is “disproportionate”.  She responded, “Israel was attacked by rockets from Gaza. Israel has a right to defend itself. The steps Hamas has taken to embed rockets and command-and-control facilities and tunnel entrances in civilian areas, this makes a response by Israel difficult. Of course Israel, just like the United States, or any other democratic country, should do everything they can possibly do to limit civilian casualties.”

She defended Israel’s actions.  “I think Israel did what it had to do to respond to the rockets. And there is the surprising number and complexity of the tunnels, and Hamas has consistently, not just in this conflict, but in the past, been less than protective of their civilians.”

Clinton also slammed the world for its preoccupation with Israel.  “[Y]ou have more than 170,000 people dead in Syria. You have the vacuum that has been created by the relentless assault by Assad on his own population, an assault that has bred these extremist groups, the most well-known of which, ISIS—or ISIL—is now literally expanding its territory inside Syria and inside Iraq. You have Russia massing battalions—Russia, that actually annexed and is occupying part of a UN member state—and I fear that it will do even more to prevent the incremental success of the Ukrainian government to take back its own territory, other than Crimea. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Ukraine on both sides, not counting the [Malaysia Airlines] plane, and yet we do see this enormous international reaction against Israel, and Israel’s right to defend itself, and the way Israel has to defend itself. This reaction is uncalled for and unfair.”


Clinton identified a number of factors contributing to the world’s imbalanced approach to Israel, starting with anti-Semitism.  “You can’t ever discount anti-Semitism, especially with what’s going on in Europe today. There are more demonstrations against Israel by an exponential amount than there are against Russia seizing part of Ukraine and shooting down a civilian airliner. So there’s something else at work here than what you see on TV.”

Clinton referred to one of Israel’s major problems during the current conflict – public relations. She criticized the international media for not reporting the truth on the ground in Gaza.

“What you see on TV is so effectively stage-managed by Hamas, and always has been. What you see is largely what Hamas invites and permits Western journalists to report on from Gaza. It’s the old PR problem that Israel has. Yes, there are substantive, deep levels of antagonism or anti-Semitism towards Israel, because it’s a powerful state, a really effective military. And Hamas paints itself as the defender of the rights of the Palestinians to have their own state. So the PR battle is one that is historically tilted against Israel.”

Clinton refused to assign blame for the civilian deaths in Gaza, saying, “it’s impossible to know what happens in the fog of war.”

However, “There’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict and wanted to do so in order to leverage its position, having been shut out by the Egyptians post-Morsi, having been shunned by the Gulf, having been pulled into a technocratic government with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority that might have caused better governance and a greater willingness on the part of the people of Gaza to move away from tolerating Hamas in their midst. So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.”

Clinton outlined her understanding of the political situation in Israel and her views on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations towards a future division of land.  She identified strongly with Netanyahu’s position on security and the need to maintain control in the West Bank.  Nevertheless, she pointed to a softening she had managed to achieve from both sides.

ISIS members in Gaza. (Photo: YouTube Screenshot)
ISIS members in Gaza. (Photo: YouTube Screenshot)

“[Y]eah, if I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security [on the West Bank], because even if I’m dealing with Abbas, who is 79 years old, and other members of Fatah, who are enjoying a better lifestyle and making money on all kinds of things, that does not protect Israel from the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else. With Syria and Iraq, it is all one big threat. So Netanyahu could not do this in good conscience. If this were Rabin or Barak in his place—and I’ve talked to Ehud about this—they would have to demand a level of security that would be provided by the [Israel Defense Forces] for a period of time. And in my meetings with them I got Abbas to about six, seven, eight years on continued IDF presence. Now he’s fallen back to three, but he was with me at six, seven, eight. I got Netanyahu to go from forever to 2025. That’s a negotiation, okay?”

When it comes to Syria, Clinton thinks that the US missed an important opportunity, and those decisions contributed heavily to the crisis the world is facing today with the Islamic State (formerly ISIS or ISIL).

“I did believe, which is why I advocated this, that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition, which would prove to be very difficult, because there was this constant struggle between what was largely an exile group outside of Syria trying to claim to be the political opposition, and the people on the ground, primarily those doing the fighting and dying, who rejected that, and we were never able to bridge that, despite a lot of efforts that [former US ambassador to Syria] Robert [Ford] and others made. “

In examining the US role in various conflicts and uprisings across the Arab and Muslim world, Clinton acknowledged, “I think we’ve learned about the limits of our power to spread freedom and democracy. That’s one of the big lessons out of Iraq. But we’ve also learned about the importance of our power, our influence, and our values appropriately deployed and explained.”

She delineated what she feels is the best way for the US to engage the world.  “[M]ost Americans think of engagement and go immediately to military engagement. That’s why I use the phrase “smart power.” I did it deliberately because I thought we had to have another way of talking about American engagement, other than unilateralism and the so-called boots on the ground.

“You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward. One issue is that we don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”

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