Hillary Clinton will break the Obama team’s near- silence on the fighting in Gaza next week when she sets out her thinking on the Middle East and beyond.
The prospective secretary of state will be watched around the world after other countries have taken the lead in seeking a ceasefire and president-elect Barack Obama, who takes office on January 20, has limited himself to vague generalities on the conflict.
Perhaps the most striking symbol of the predicament facing Washington is the Bush administration’s abstention this week on the United Nations security council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Some see the abstention as further proof of US reluctance to censure Israel; others, particularly within Israel itself, see Washington’s failure to oppose the resolution as one of the more important signs of distance between the US and Israel in recent years.
It is Mrs Clinton’s foreign policy views, rather than any serious doubt over whether she will be confirmed as secretary of state, that are set to be the centre of attention at Tuesday’s Senate confirmation hearing. “She has a very strong candidacy,” Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee, said.
One focus will on Hamas. Mr Obama has publicly ruled out direct contacts, but even the Bush administration relaxed its policy of total isolation of the Islamist organisation when it encouraged Egypt to broker the Hamas-Israeli ceasefire that collapsed last year.
But Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton’s promises to concentrate on middle east peace from the moment they take office come against a backdrop of increased US support for Israel in the decade and a half since former president George H.W. Bush used loan guarantees to put pressure on the country. This week, the US Senate unanimously supported a resolution declaring that it “stands with Israel” and yesterday the House of Representatives was set to back a similar measure.
Over the past 10 years, Mrs Clinton has also marked herself out as a dependable ally of Israel. During her race against Mr Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, she warned that the US could “obliterate” Iran in the case of a nuclear attack against Israel, explaining that cold war era thinking on deterrence could help foil Tehran’s ambitions.
Last year, at the annual conference of Aipac, the pro-Israel group, she said she rejected negotiating with Hamas while it refused to recognise Israel.
Still, some analysts believe that Mrs Clinton might modulate her positions once in office. “The kind of hawkishness that we have seen from her will diminish in this new role,” says Steve Clemons of the New America foundation, a Washington-based think-tank. “Her campaign is over and she will no longer be a senator from New York, which represents one of the largest and most wealthy pockets of Jewish contributors in the US.”
Much of the day-to-day work on Israel-Palestine is set to fall to a new envoy for the region, who would work with Dennis Ross, a former top state department official earmarked for a wider-ranging role dealing with Iran – accused by many US analysts of fighting a proxy war against Israel via Hamas and the Lebanese Shia movement Hizbollah. A third envoy, Richard Holbrooke, ambassador to the UN during the Clinton administration, is expected to work on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, an academic at Princeton tipped to take a top policy job in Mrs Clinton’s state department, told a conference in Washington this week that the new administration would not deal with Israel-Palestine in isolation but as one of a series of interlocking problems. “President elect Obama and secretary Clinton both think of the Middle East as one area from Israel to India,” she said.
But some observers speculate that Mrs Clinton might struggle to establish a strong voice for herself if the envoys take a prominent role while figures elsewhere in the new administration – whether vice president-elect Joe Biden or secretary of defence Robert Gates – also seek to set foreign policy.
“It seems to me that it is always better to start with fewer envoys rather than start with a lot and have to whittle down,” Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush, told the FT.
The biggest risk of all is a rift with Mr Obama, who during the primaries struck a notably softer line on Iran than Mrs Clinton. The new administration’s foes at home and abroad are already looking for such tensions. “The real foreign policy question for the first year is how long does it take for Hillary and Barack to be in open conflict,” said a former Bush administration official.
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