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Hillary Rodham Clinton was in Israel Monday for her fourth visit as secretary of state; the third, however, was 22 months ago. On the other hand, Clinton’s visit came hard on the heels of one by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and it was further reported on Monday that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would be coming to Jerusalem at the end of July.
While Donilon’s visit was kept rather hushed-up, clearly part of the motive for Clinton and Panetta’s visits is political with GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney also scheduled to be here at the end of July. With President Obama himself never having stopped by the Holy Land since taking office, and his party nervous about the Jewish vote, visibly dispatching Clinton and Panetta here is intended to offset some of the political capital that Romney hopes to gain with his visit.
Undoubtedly, though, more than mere politicking is at play in this flurry of high-level contacts. Clinton’s previous stop was Egypt, where the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi as president has given Israel the jitters while—publicly at least—evoking mainly plaudits and encouragement from Washington.
But while Morsi’s capacity to wreak harm remains uncertain, as Egypt’s Supreme Military Council tries to curb his powers and the country remains mired in a severe economic crisis, two other Middle Eastern flashpoints pose much more imminent threats. In Syria, chaos looms with Islamist elements now spearheading the rebels and the country’s vast chemical and biological weapons stockpiles in danger of falling into radical hands. And in Iran, the race to the bomb continues unimpeded by insufficient sanctions, let alone the ludicrously hollow “negotiations” between Iran and the P5+1 countries.
With war clouds darkening the putative “Arab Spring,” then, one might have expected a much lower profile for the “peace”—that is, Palestinian—issue in Clinton’s visit on Monday compared to her earlier stopovers. A day earlier, Obama, asked by a TV interviewer where he felt he had failed as president, replied that he had “not been able to move the peace process forward in the Middle East the way I wanted.” Reports in the Israeli media on Monday night said Clinton had met only briefly at her Jerusalem hotel with Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad, without making the once-obligatory stop in Ramallah.
On the other hand, hopes that the last three and a half years have sobered the administration on this score had to be tempered by Obama’s added remark that “the truth of the matter is that the parties, they’ve got to want [peace] as well”—an equivalency that indicates an ongoing inability to distinguish between Israel, a democracy that has sometimes made desperate concessions in the hope of peace, and a Palestinian side that systematically instills hatred and rejection of Israel in its population.
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