On the Plane

Secretary Clinton Can Still Play Politician

By Glenn Kessler
JERUSALEM--Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's global celebrity is readily apparent here at the storied King David Hotel, where both she and her press entourage are staying.

The center of the main lobby includes the signatures of the many presidents, prime ministers and Hollywood stars who have visited the hotel over the decades. And, sure enough, there is the John Hancock of "Hillary Rodham Clinton," former first lady. Her photo also adorns one of the walls.

Surely this is a first for a Secretary of State's maiden voyage to Israel.

Clinton, of course, is also the first accomplished politician to become the chief U.S. diplomat since Sen. Edmund Muskie at the end of the Carter administration nearly three decades ago. Her political skills were on display at the news conference she held Monday night in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, after an international donors conference for Gaza.

By which I mean, Clinton did not really answer any of the questions posed to her. That takes skill and discipline.

Also, she ended with such a stirring pledge to work on peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians that Arab journalists erupted in applause at the end of the news conference. I have never seen that before in seven years of covering the diplomacy beat. I checked with a State Department official who has witnessed dozens of news conferences in the Middle East over some 30 years, and he said he had never seen such a reaction before either.

Clinton may not have any more success pursuing Middle East peace than her predecessors, and her soaring rhetoric may offer false hope. In fact, the gist of what she says in some cases differs little from her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice. But Clinton's passion for politics and her skill at public diplomacy may nevertheless do a lot to ease Arab anger at the United States.

Below is a deconstruction of parts of the news conference, with Clinton's answers following by my commentary, in italics.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, you called on Israel today to show the Palestinians that there are benefits to negotiating. I guess I'm interested in what you have in mind there. Does it include freezing settlements and opening border crossings? And added to that, your EU colleague, Ms. Ferraro-Waldner, said that you will certainly make the case in Jerusalem on opening border crossings. Will you?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, Israel is in the process of forming a new government, and we will be discussing specific policies with that new government once it is formed. Tomorrow, Senator Mitchell and I will be meeting with all of the major players in Israel. On Wednesday, we will go to Ramallah and meet for a working meeting with President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.

As a general principle, we believe it is important for Israel to work with its responsible Palestinian partners, including President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, to improve the lives of Palestinians, to expand opportunities for Palestinians, and to strengthen their capacity to govern the Palestinian people and move toward a viable state.

As I said in my remarks, to me, this is about what happens to the children in Gaza and the West Bank. I got into politics because I care deeply about what happens to children. I could never have imagined that I'd be sitting here as the United States Secretary of State. My work has always been about how to give children a better chance to live up to their God-given potential.

A child in Gaza has the same right as a child anywhere in the world to a good education, to health care, and to a better future. Parents in the West Bank have the same right as parents anywhere in the world to a good job, to housing, to a better opportunity for their children.

That is what motivates me, and I believe that will be the basis on which we discuss how best to realize the goal of a two-state solution, a comprehensive peace, and a better future for Israeli and Palestinian children.

Clinton completely ducks the question, leaving reporters with no clue about Obama administration policy on Israeli actions. Instead, she diverts into an almost maudlin account of her devotion to the children in Palestine. It's strange to hear such comments from a Secretary of State. But for the local audience, it's effective.

QUESTION: This is a question from (inaudible) magazine. Will the U.S. try to convince Israel to agree on the ceasefire agreement that Egypt has done a lot to reach it? And the second point: Will you consult with the countries in the region concerning your dialogue - future dialogue with Iran? Thank you.

SECRETARY CLINTON: I commend Egypt for the role that it has played in working toward a ceasefire and attempting to bring the parties together - the Palestinian parties as well as with Israel - for a durable and lasting ceasefire. But I have to confess I am troubled by the continuing rocket attacks coming out of Gaza, 15 to 18 rockets in the last several days.

We call upon all parties to move toward a durable ceasefire, but it is very difficult for any country to just sit and take rockets falling on its people. That is the crux of the Israeli problem. How are they supposed to respond when they continue to have that kind of attack? So I commend the Egyptians and know that they will continue to work toward a durable ceasefire, but I hope that we are able to get a position established where that can be done.

As to Iran, we have made it very clear that we are going to consult constantly with our friends and partners. We have made our point to the people here in Egypt, in Jordan, as well as in the Gulf and elsewhere that, as President Obama said, we are willing to extend a hand if the other side unclenches its fist in order to have some process of engagement. But it will only be done in close consultation with our friends.

Again, Clinton avoids the question. She turns a query about whether the U.S. will pressure Israel into an answer about attacks on Israel.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, in some of your meetings today, particularly with the United Arab Emirates, you expressed doubts about whether Iran will accept your overtures for talks. If indeed this is the case, then why is it such a good idea to reach out to Iran? And secondly, could you please tell us about your meeting, or your brief exchange, with the Syrian foreign minister? And do you plan to send an ambassador or an envoy there soon?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Sue, with respect to any of my meetings that I held today, I will not characterize them in any specifics. I will say, in general, that they were productive and constructive and I thought, created a greater depth of understanding and basis for our working relationship going forward.

With respect to talking with the Syrian foreign minister, I will reiterate that in consultation with our friends and allies, our partners, we are reaching out to determine what, if any, areas of cooperation and engagement are possible, and that includes with respect to Syria.

Another whiff by the reporters. We had been told that she had raised doubts about the administration's approach to Iran in her meeting with her UAE counterpart. But she absolutely refuses to discuss it.

QUESTION: Thank you. Madame Clinton, the people in this region are pinning a lot of hope on the Obama Administration to engage actively and to help bring about a just solution. Will the U.S. Administration consider engaging with Hamas, the same way you're reaching out to Iran, at any point? Thank you.

Hamas is not a country. It is an entity that has to understand what the principles for any engagement are not just from the United States. The Quartet - which consists of the United Nations, Russia, the European Union, and the United States - as well as the Arab League are in agreement that there are certain principles that Hamas would have to adopt in order for any of us to engage with Hamas: recognize Israel, renounce violence, and agree to abide by the prior PLO agreements. Now that is not the United States talking. That is the Quartet and the Arab League. Everyone knows what Hamas must do, and it is up to Hamas.

Here's where Clinton is channeling Condoleezza Rice. This is word-by-word Bush administration policy. It ignores the fact that Russia engages with Hamas, as does the Arab League, and that the EU is showing new flexibility. And Fatah, the Hamas rival that the United States supports, is also not a country.

QUESTION: Madame, President Sarkozy said today that he hopes to see a conference by the end of the year, to see to a declaration of a Palestinian state. From your point of view, is it possible as circumstances on the ground? Thank you.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Is it possible to see the declaration of a Palestinian state?

QUESTION: In a year.



SECRETARY CLINTON: I am a very hopeful person. It would be our hope that there could certainly be progress that was tangible, that positively affected the lives of the Palestinian people, which led to the possibility, the probability, of a viable state.

You all know that this is a very difficult and complex set of issues. You also know that I personally am very committed to this. And I know that it can be done. I believe that with all my heart. The timing of it will depend upon human effort and political will on all sides. It is not either/or, it is everyone. We have to decide whether we are ready to move on to other issues, whether we're ready to say: yes, let's take a chance on peace, and let's provide the opportunity for the Palestinian people to build and create a better future for their children.

You will see the amount of effort that the United States puts into this. I was talking to President Mubarak this morning about the many, many conversations he had with my husband in the 1990s, where they would stay up all night, night after night, and make maybe this much progress. But that much progress was worth it, because somebody didn't die and somebody had a better life and somebody wasn't turned from hope to despair.

I wish it could happen tomorrow. I wish it could happen certainly by the end of this year. But I will not give up. We will make progress. We made progress today. The amount of money committed was significant. The presentation from Prime Minister Fayyad was as good as I've seen from anybody. I mean, that's a presentation that should make every person proud, because it was so professional, so well thought out, and it inspired confidence. The statement of President Abbas about working together to achieve a state should give absolute proof that we're not giving up on the two-state solution; we are committed to it.

I feel passionately about this. This is something that is in my heart, not just in my portfolio.

And it is something that means a great deal to our Special Envoy. Some of you know that George Mitchell's father was Irish and his mother was Lebanese. Well, he solved half of his family's problems. So now he's here working on the second half, and we hope that we will see it come to fruition. (Applause.)

This is such an unusual answer for a diplomat, but as public diplomacy it is brilliant. There are a number of great quotable lines, especially the one about how it is in her heart, not just her portfolio. And ending with Mitchell and his background is very clever. The applause says it all.

By Washington Post Editor |  March 3, 2009; 6:37 AM ET  | Trip:  Clinton in Mideast, March 2009
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

That "glow" around Hillary is called the Aurora Obamalis, and it's a short-term effect that will erode into the dull hues of "Same-ol', same-ol'" when it becomes apparent that the "change" people voted for is just the $13.00 a week in nickles and dimes they're getting out of the so-called "Stimulus Package." It'll take a bit longer for the rest of the world to figure it out, since they don't have stellar publications like WaPo to spell it out for them on a daily basis.

Posted by: Apostrophe | March 3, 2009 8:55 AM

Great piece here, Glenn, with the Q&A followed by your comments. I would love to see more of these after other press functions.

The sorts of things that drove me crazy about HC in the past as a campaigner are the sorts of things that may be applied to productive use in international diplomacy.

Posted by: Mike | March 3, 2009 11:13 AM

Israel and Palestine, welcome to "Hill-town." She'll knock their heads together till they see it her way or die trying.

Posted by: cd | March 3, 2009 2:03 PM

Gee, Mike 11:13 a.m. - I am shocked! another guy weighs in with his protests to HRC. wow, so original. what's that - you'd vote for a woman, just not THAT woman?? riiight.
delighted HRC is on the case. watching NoBama drive into a brick wall while running trillions on the tab has gotten old. I am sick of him already.
can we just have Hillary, please. she got more votes (look it up) in the primary. she is impressive out saving the world. go Hillary!

Posted by: Hillary rules | March 3, 2009 3:04 PM

One would hope that our relationships with Syria and Iran are not any longer dictated by Israel through AIPAC. Our State and Defense departments & Congress have for too long been manipulated by the Israeli lobby. Enough is enough. Who needs them--let them fight their own manufactured wars--if they only want to kill each other--let them. Without US help, Israel would find a way to live side by side with the people they hate.

Posted by: J. Stack | March 3, 2009 3:40 PM

Hillary is GOOD! Imagine getting a round of applause from the Arab journalists? While this reporter, and Americans, may find emotional responsiveness to children and their parents "maudlin", the people in the Middle East do not.
They and their children have simply suffered too much for too long. Too many murders. Too much "collateral damage".
For an American to even RECOGNIZE a class of human beings as "children" and "parents", as opposed to seeing them only through the filter of opposing political parties, is enough to bring the Middle East to their feet in applause. And, why shouldn't it.
And more power to her and our President who appointed her to look out for the children and the parents of this world in our name.

Posted by: cms1 | March 3, 2009 7:42 PM

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