Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, about her years as secretary of state in the Obama administration, was released on 10 June 2014. To promote the book, Clinton embarked on a national U.S. tour, which many political analysts regarded as early groundwork for a possible presidential run in the 2016 election. Over the course of the tour, Clinton was interviewed numerous times about her political ambitions, her opinions about the current policies of the Obama administration, and her experiences as secretary of state.
In early August, Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg View and the Atlantic interviewed Clinton at her New York office. To questions relating to the United States and the Middle East, including the ongoing Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, the former secretary of state responded with a broad critique of the Obama administration, saying “‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not and organizing principle.” She added that had she been the president she would have opted for a smoother relationship with Israel.
The complete transcript of the interview was published at www.bloombergview.com and www.theatlantic.com on 10 August along with a short introduction by Goldberg. Presented below are excerpts concerning Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, global anti-Semitism, and the assault on Gaza.
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So, Gaza. As you write in your book, you negotiated the last long-term ceasefire in 2012. Are you surprised at all that it didn’t hold?
I’m surprised that it held as long as it did. But given the changes in the region, the fall of [former Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi, his replacement by [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi, the corner that Hamas felt itself in, I’m not surprised that Hamas provoked another attack.
The Israeli response, was it disproportionate?
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.
Do you think Israel did enough to limit civilian casualties?
It’s unclear. 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.
Before we continue talking endlessly about Gaza, can I ask you if you think we spend too much time on Gaza and on Israel-Palestine generally? I ask because over the past year or so your successor spent a tremendous amount of time on the Israel-Palestinian file and in the same period of time an al Qaeda-inspired organization took over half of Syria and Iraq.
I understand that secretaries of state can do more than one thing at a time. But what is the cause of this preoccupation?
I’ve thought a lot about this, because you do have a number of conflicts going on right now. As the U.S., as a U.S. official, you have to pay attention to anything that threatens Israel directly, or anything in the larger Middle East that arises out of the Palestinian-Israeli situation. That’s just a given.
It is striking, however, that you 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.
What do you think causes this reaction?
There are a number of factors going into it. 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.
And 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.
Nevertheless there are hundreds of children—
Absolutely, and it’s dreadful.
Who do you hold responsible for those deaths? How do you parcel out blame?
I’m not sure it’s possible to parcel out blame because it’s impossible to know what happens in the fog of war. Some reports say, maybe it wasn’t the exact UN school that was bombed, but it was the annex to the school next door where they were firing the rockets. And I do think oftentimes that the anguish you are privy to because of the coverage, and the women and the children and all the rest of that, makes it very difficult to sort through to get to the truth.
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.
That doesn’t mean that, just as we try to do in the United States and be as careful as possible in going after targets to avoid civilians, that there aren’t mistakes that are made. We’ve made them. I don’t know a nation, no matter what its values are—and I think that democratic nations have demonstrably better values in a conflict position—that hasn’t made errors, but ultimately the responsibility rests with Hamas.
Several years ago, when you were in the Senate, we had a conversation about what would move Israeli leaders to make compromises for peace. You’ve had a lot of arguments with Netanyahu. What is your thinking on Netanyahu now?
Let’s step back. First of all, [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin was prepared to do so much and he was murdered for that belief. And then [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Barak offered everything you could imagine being given under any realistic scenario to the Palestinians for their state, and [former Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat walked away. I don’t care about the revisionist history. I know that Arafat walked away, okay? Everybody says, “American needs to say something.” Well, we said it, it was the Clinton parameters, we put it out there, and Bill Clinton is adored in Israel, as you know. He got Netanyahu to give up territory, which Netanyahu believes lost him the prime ministership [in his first term], but he moved in that direction, as hard as it was.
Bush pretty much ignored what was going on and they made a terrible error in the Palestinian elections [in which Hamas came to power in Gaza], but he did come with the Roadmap [to Peace] and the Roadmap was credible and it talked about what needed to be done, and this is one area where I give the Palestinians credit. Under [former Palestinian Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad, they made a lot of progress.
I had the last face-to-face negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu. [Secretary of State John] Kerry never got there. I had them in the room three times with [former Middle East negotiator] George Mitchell and me, and that was it. And I saw Netanyahu move from being against the two-state solution to announcing his support for it, to considering all kinds of Barak-like options, way far from what he is, and what he is comfortable with.
Now I put Jerusalem in a different category. That is the hardest issue, Again, based on my experience—and you know, I got Netanyahu to agree to the unprecedented settlement freeze, it did not cover East Jerusalem, but it did cover the West Bank and it was actually legitimate and it did stop new housing starts for 10 months. It took me nine months to get Abbas into the negotiations even after we delivered on the settlement freeze, he had a million reasons, some of them legitimate, some of them the same old, same old.
So what I tell people is, yeah, 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? So I know. Dealing with Bibi is not easy, so people get frustrated and they lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve here.
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