Posted on March 09, 2009 in Washington Watch

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent Middle East trip was striking, by any measure. Despite grumbling by some in the Arab media for what they derided as her “excessive caution,” or claiming that she merely echoed the policies of the previous administration – some going so far as to mock her as “Condi Clinton” – her overall performance was significant and substantial.

She was constructive on many fronts: chiding Israel for its failure to open the borders of Gaza sufficiently to facilitate the transport of relief assistance and supplies; publicly criticizing Israeli settlements as “unhelpful, and not in keeping with obligations entered into under the Roadmap;” and expressing concern with the Jerusalem municipality’s plans to demolish Palestinian homes, noting that “the ramifications” of this action go “far beyond the individuals and families affected.”

Clinton, of course, spoke empathetically about her commitment to a two-state solution, saying that is an “obligation” and noting that it was a “commitment” she “carried deep in my heart.”

Most important, I believe, were her remarks humanizing the situation of Palestinians. In one eloquent passage, Secretary Clinton noted, “That a child growing up in Gaza without shelter, health care, or an education has the same right to go to school, see a doctor, and live with a roof over her head as a child growing up in your country or mine. That a mother and father in the West Bank struggling to fulfill their dreams for their children have the same right as parents anywhere else in the world to a good job, a decent home, and the tools to achieve greater prosperity and peace. That progress toward the goals we seek here today is more likely to grow out of opportunity, than futility; out of hope, than out of misery.”

In this, Clinton was continuing what President Obama began in his January 22nd remarks at the State Department, when he spoke passionately about the suffering of the people in Gaza as a result of the Israeli assault. Aside, even from the political comments, the importance of these human portrayals cannot be over-emphasized, since they are “tone-setters,” dramatically impacting public discourse and even directing press attention toward more human treatment of the Palestinian people.

Some Arab critics, of course, ignored all of this, noting only that the Secretary of State spoke of America’s “unwavering support for Israel’s security,” was harsh in her criticism of Iran, and tough on Hamas.

I am tempted to dismiss these critics out of hand. Every American leader will express support for Israel’s security (but Clinton and President Obama emphasize that a Palestinian state is critical to Israel’s long-term security). I would also note that Iran’s predictably bizarre and provocative behavior (their faux “human rights conference,” continued incitement and aggressive bluster), and Hamas’ irresponsible stubbornness and insensitivity to the consequences of their failed leadership, make both deserving of the rebukes they received.

But even with regard to these regional “bad boys,” one cannot fail to observe that current U.S. policy is providing opportunities for constructive engagement. Secretary Clinton, in her remarks, obliquely, but nonetheless clearly, praised President Mubarak’s efforts to heal the Palestinian divide. Under the previous Administration, Palestinian efforts to reach a reconciliation accord that creatively addressed Quartet conditions were sabotaged by both U.S. and Israeli intransigence. President Obama, Senator Mitchell and Secretary Clinton have indicated that they would be more open to recognizing and working with a Palestinian national unity government committed to peacemaking.

This prospect alone, and with it, the likelihood of reconstruction aid flowing into Gaza and the West Bank, should serve as an incentive for Palestinian reconciliation.

How much of a corner Secretary Clinton turned can be seen in the reaction of other critics of her performance. Extremists in Iran were bellicose, the mayor of Jerusalem was incensed, hard-liners in the American Jewish community were shocked (saying they wanted “the old Hillary Clinton back”), and obstructionists among the Republicans in the Senate have put forward initiatives designed to not only send a warning shot at the Obama Administration’s Middle East efforts, but to sabotage the Administration’s 2010 budget appropriation, as well.

Digging ourselves out of the deep hole dug during the past eight years will not be easy. Political realities here in the U.S. and on all sides in the Middle East will require that peacemakers confront real problems and ingrained bad behavior. The process will be slow and, of necessity, require incremental movement and careful management. During this period, substantive and constructive criticism has a role in pushing the effort forward, but not uninformed grousing.

In this regard, it should be acknowledged that Secretary of State Clinton made a contribution to moving peace forward. She set firm markers, not just for the Palestinians, but for Israeli behavior, and in doing so, set the state for continuing efforts by Special Envoy Mitchell to end the deadly impasse. Again, progress won’t come quickly, but the steps being taken are in the right direction.

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