Remember all the fuss in the lead up to the March 2015 Israeli election when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was accused by the Obama Administration of being against a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Now, almost 20 months later, revealing new insider information has come to light that should put the matter to rest once and for all.
Yesterday, Wikileaks’ published an email discussion between Hillary Clinton’s top advisors that occurred the day after Netanyahu’s re-election which confirmed that Netanyahu had spent “dozens of hours of convos” with Clinton “where he not only support[ed] a two-state solution but actively negotiated to bring it about”.
For this very reason, Clinton policy point-man Jake Sullivan – one of her top advisors and former National Security Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden and Director of Policy Planning to President Barack Obama – quashed the idea of having Clinton join in criticising Netanyahu in the press.
The email appears as part of Wikileaks gradual dissemination of messages originating from the email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta.
While Clinton did not officially announce her candidacy until April 2015, clearly an advance team was already laying the groundwork for her campaign, and it is against this background where the email took place.
Why is it important to correct the historical record 20 months later?
The erroneous belief that Netanyahu was opposed to a two-state outcome was used to bludgeon Netanyahu diplomatically and in the press, including here in Australia.
For example, Fairfax’s Ruth Pollard, in her analysis of the Israeli elections published in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 20, 2015, claimed Netanyahu had made an “open denunciation of a two-state solution”, adding, in her words:
Despite maintaining a public position of support for a two-state solution, Mr Netanyahu had consistently proven he was committed to eroding any possibility of a peace deal
Pollard’s attack piece, as vicious as it was, is nevertheless a useful example to raise as it also linked to some of the diplomatic and public relations fallout from the incident, including quotes from White House officials and European foreign policy wonks. All of her sources attack Netanyahu and rush to judgement, claiming Netanyahu had abandoned the two-state outcome and may have never believed in it.
Other commentators have similarly treated that single pessimistic statement as the definitive reflection of Netanyahu’s views, despite his dozens of statements to the contrary before and afterwards and the testimony of mediators who worked with him on the peace process.
Yesterday’s Wikileaks revelation, however, convincingly debunks this narrative, based on solid, first-hand information from people who would know best – Hillary Clinton’s team, who were privy to closed-door consultations between Clinton and Netanyahu during US efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations following Netanyahu’s unilateral ten-month settlement freeze in 2009 and 2010.
On a side note, while Clinton herself had attested to the seriousness of Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state outcome in her 2014 memoir “Hard Choices”, one could have perhaps argued she may have done so with rose-coloured glasses out of cynical reasons with an eye on the 2016 elections.
The fact that her closest advisors would privately defend Netanyahu the following year, at a time when the White House was criticising the Israeli leader, must be seen as particularly significant.
Who was involved in the email?
Jake Sullivan – Senior Policy Advisor to Hillary Clinton, Former National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden, Former Director of Policy Planning (for the White House)
Jennifer Palmieri – At the time, in her final days as White House Director of Communications, soon to become Director of Communications for the Hillary 2016 campaign.
Nick Merrill – Hillary Clinton’s Press Secretary
Philippe Reines – Senior Advisor to Hillary Clinton
Jim Rutenberg – New York Times Chief Political Correspondent
Copied into the email, but did not contribute to the discussion:
John Podesta – Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Manager
Understanding the email
The linked email was actually the end of a thread of emails involving a series of replies over the course of an hour or two, so it requires a little bit of explanation to be fully understood.
On the morning of March 18, 2015 – Rutenberg emailed Reines and mentioned he was writing an article that would survey the position of Republican presidential candidates on the two-state solution. As part of the story, Rutenberg told Reines he’d like to include Clinton’s own position on the topic.
“[I] figure I should make sure I take note of Secretary Clinton’s, which I assume is not expected to change from ‘essential’?” Rutenberg wrote.
While it is not made explicitly clear, apparently Reines circulated this email right away to Sullivan, Palmieri, Merrill and Podesta.
Palmieri was first to react, and seemed eager to use the opportunity to find a way for Clinton to add her voice to the White House’s criticism of Netanyahu for expressing scepticism that a Palestinian state could be feasibly created in his next term.
Palmieri, like Obama and her colleagues in the White House, was pushing the interpretation that this comment by Netanyahu meant that he was now somehow “against” a two-state solution.
Think this is our first incoming on how to handle Bibi being against a 2 state solution.
Are we clear on how we want to handle this? Should we do a call?
Within minutes, however, Sullivan returned a substantive reply that flatly rejected having Clinton weigh in on Netanyahu’s remarks, because Sullivan disagreed with the notion that Netanyahu was against the two-state solution. Further, he was certain that, judging from her own personal experiences with Netanyahu, Clinton would feel the same way.
Sullivan wrote (emphasis added in bold):
Don’t think we need a call. She is for a two-state solution and thinks the status quo is unsustainable. She had dozens of hours of convos with Bibi where he not only supported a two-state solution but actively negotiated to bring it about. We don’t need to wade into Israeli politics but we should be clear and unabashed about our own position.
Sullivan’s view carried the day. Merrill entered the discussion, asking how they should respond to the NYT request – noting that Clinton had generally avoided making injecting herself into foreign policy debate since leaving her position as Secretary of State.
I don’t want a “declined to comment” on something as straightforward as this. If you can get away with him simply noting her previous statements, great. If not, a simple “a spokesperson confirmed her views have not changed” would be good, no?
Finally, Merrill responded in agreement, concluding the email conversation.
This revelation by Wikileaks should lead to a revision of the historical record about the controversy to reflect the fact that the White House position at the time that Netanyahu was against a two-state solution (a view voiced in this email by White House’s Communications Director Palmieri) was at odds with the views of Obama’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (as voiced by Sullivan) who knew first-hand that Netanyahu not only supported a two-state outcome but had “actively negotiated to bring it about”.
Update: A previous version of this blog contained the following paragraph, placed just before the conclusion:
As things panned out, the discussion was moot. The NYT article that was eventually published ten days later evidently differed to the one that Rutenberg envisioned. Titled “For Republican Candidates, Support for Israel Is an Inviolable Litmus Test“, it was written by Peter Baker, not Rutenberg, and was rejigged to centre around criticism of Republican party attitudes towards Israel voiced by former George W. Bush Secretary of State James Baker at the annual conference of the left-wing Israel lobby group J Street which had taken place that week. The article made no reference to either Hillary Clinton or her positions on the two-state outcome.
Yet in my haste to finish the blog before deadline, I was mistaken. I had been searching the New York Times daily archive for Rutenberg’s article, but forgot to check the New York Times Magazine archive. It was in the Magazine where Rutenberg’s story appeared on March 19, in a story titled “Will Republicans Still Support a Two-State Solution Even if Netanyahu Doesn’t?“.
The story did, indeed, include a short mention of Clinton’s position.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Rodham Clinton still remains steadfast in her support of the two-state policy, her aides said.)
In any event, Rutenberg’s March 19 story only proves the point made in this blog even more emphatically, as it embodied another example of how the media twisted Netanyahu’s words at the time.
In light of this, it is a shame that Sullivan’s personal assertion (in Clinton’s name) that Netanyahu supported the two-state solution was kept between Clinton’s team and not shared with Rutenberg, as it may have made for a very different story and narrative.
On the other hand, the fact that the New York Times published two lengthy critiques of Israel from the Republican perspective within 10 days says something about the Times’ coverage of Israel in general.