Clinton: A return to Middle East interventionism (part two)

Clinton: A return to Middle East interventionism (part two)
Comment: Hillary has united Saudi Arabia and Israel in mutual concern by her choice of running mate, but neither Tel Aviv nor Riyadh have anything to fear, writes Sylvain Cypel.
5 min read
18 Aug, 2016
Hillary is held in high regard by Riyadh due to her aversion to Iran [Getty]

In the second of a two-part commentary, Sylvain Cypel explores the implications of a Clinton presdiency for the Middle East. Missed the first instalment? Catch up here.

Riyadh over Tehran

In 2010, as Obama's first term secretary of state, Clinton chose Robert Kagan, one of the neo-cons' brightest ideologists for her Foreign Affairs Policy Board, a group of outside advisers. Will she follow this ideology again once she's president?

More important and perhaps more telling of what her policy might be once elected, Clinton does not share Barack Obama's views on relations with Tehran. The current president thinks of Iran as a crucial actor in stabilising the Middle East.

For Hillary Clinton, the privileged partners are (not counting Israel) Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Sunni world, and Egypt.

In November 2015 during a speech at the Brookings Institute, she insisted on maintaining an uncompromising distance with Tehran: "I don't see Iran as our partner in implementing this agreement. I believe Iran is the subject of the agreement."

This is a view that will please Riyadh, and one reason why Hillary Clinton is particularly favourably treated by the Saudi channel Al-Arabiya. Joyce Karam, the Washington correspondent for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, explains that Clinton winning the presidency might put an end to the current situation where "not one of the Middle East leaders has a close relationship with the White House".

She hopes that in keeping with her "pragmatism", Clinton will cultivate "personal relations" with the leaders of the region.

Clinton has long been close to Israeli leaders [Getty]

A close relationship with Aipac

The Al-Hayat columnist continues her wishful thinking by saying she expects Clinton to strengthen the currently tense relations with the Sunni world by being more aggressive towards Russia and Iran, and even renewing the 2002 Arab League peace initiative on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

This initiative, supported by Saudi Arabia and turned down by Israel at the time, offered normalised relations between the Jewish state and the Arab world in return for a withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. On this point, Israel's expectations were not exactly the same.

Yet Clinton has always appeared as one of the Democratic leaders closest to Aipac, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. She has always held the Palestinians as responsible for the failure of the peace talks. She has declared herself in favour of supplementary demands from Israel - recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" by the PLO, continued Israeli control of the Jordan valley, etc.

Comment: Palestine and Hillary - 'the lesser evil'

However, unlike the Republican Party, whose electoral platform has moved away from Washington's traditional position on the conflict of "two states living alongside each other in peace and security" Clinton never budged, even if at the start of Obama's first term. She kept her distance from his initiative to relaunch peace talks - a mission led by envoy George Mitchell - because it demanded Israel stop colonising Palestinian territories; a condition she knew Israel would refuse. The Mitchell mission failed.

Today the Israeli political class and electorate would prefer any other president to Hillary Clinton. But if it must be a Democrat, then Hillary would be the best of the bunch.

That's the general feeling in Jerusalem. Israeli leaders are, however, showing signs of concern at what they see as an alarming evolution: The rise among young democrats and the left-fringe of the party of a more blatant hostility towards Israel's policies regarding the Palestinians.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Centre, 55 percent of liberal democrats in the United States are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than they are to Israel. That's a striking change, even more so when we know a large proportion are Jews. For those liberals who - as demonstrated by Bernie sanders - are more numerous than previously thought, Clinton will have to give even stronger support to the Palestinians than Obama did. It would be a small, domestic hurdle for President Clinton but one she won't be able to ignore.

As if to demonstrate that "classicism" has dominated her entire campaign, Hillary Clinton has chosen as running mate a thoroughly mainstream man, representative of the dominant current of American politics. She might have chosen a black man or a Latino to better woo ethnic minorities, or even opted for a surprise nomination to appeal to the youth vote, who see her negatively.

But she eventually settled for Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, a veteran of American politics, member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, and a man of the centre who won't appeal to those who voted for Sanders, as remarked the New York Jewish liberal newspaper, The Forward.

Kaine is also a known "friend of Israel". He was, however, one of the elected Democrats who refused to attend Binyamin Netanyahu's provocative speech against Obama and the Iran deal at the Congress in March 2015. Kaine was a staunch supporter of the agreement from the outset, something which will unite the Israelis and the Saudis in mutual concern.   

This is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners at Orient XXI. 

Sylvain Cypel, a former correspondent for Le Monde, is the author of 'Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse'.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.