Hillary Clinton's first test likely in Gaza

December 31, 2008 While Clinton brings to the table of any future Mideast peace negotiations a respected name and the goodwill surrounding her boss Barack Obama -- and her husband, former President Bill Clinton -- she also brings a legacy of contradictory statements about the region.

Since Hamas, the Islamist organization branded a terror group by the United States, violated a ceasefire and then, five days ago, Israel began responding with precision air strikes, President-elect Obama and Clinton have both refused to comment on the fighting, leading many to wonder where the new administration stands on the conflict.

Clinton, who, when running against Obama for the Democratic nomination, criticized Obama for his lack of foreign policy experience, has also been lambasted for her own lack of credentials, and over the course of nearly 20 years in the national spotlight has made a series of contradictory statements about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Departing from her then-president husband's position and what was then longstanding U.S. policy, Hillary Clinton in 1998 called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, a remark the White House later stepped back from. She again took flak from pro-Israel groups when, in 2000, she kissed Souha Arafat, the wife of then-Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

But since becoming the junior senator from New York in 2000, and in running this year for president, Clinton has avowed a staunchly pro-Israel position, telling ABC News that if Iran attacked Israel, the United States would "totally obliterate" it.

"Israelis and Palestinians know Bill Clinton and they know Hillary Clinton," said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The Palestinians remember her embracing Arafat's wife Souha, the Israelis remember her as the senator from New York who threatened Iran."

Having taken both pro-Palestinian positions and pro-Israeli positions may, in fact, strengthen her position as a diplomat and negotiator, rather than hurt it, said Tamara Wittes, a Brookings Institute fellow who specializes in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

"It is a mixed legacy that could serve her well on both sides," Wittes said.

"As first lady she split with her husband and made some pretty controversial comments. As senator from New York and on the campaign she was avowedly pro-Israel. There is fodder there for both optimists and pessimists from both sides," she said.

Clinton also brings to the table her name and the legacy of her husband's work to make peace.

"Her husband is warmly remembered by both Israelis and Palestinians as someone who understood their concerns and desires," Wittes said. "His efforts ultimately failed at the end of his presidency, but he received credit from both sides. He's probably the only person in the world who could get elected in Israel or the Palestinian territories."

But the conflict of 2008 is very different from where Bill Clinton left things in 2000, said retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"Clinton and Obama are faced with an entirely different game," Zinni said. "There are no strong leaders on either side. Leaders in both places are in trouble with their own constituencies and are weak."

The conflict Obama and Hillary Clinton will encounter differs vastly from the one President Clinton came close to resolving in the waning days of his presidency in 2000. Since then, Arafat has died and the Palestinians have become increasingly fractured, with Arafat's secular Fattah party, which governs the West Bank, sometimes openly warring with the Islamist Hamas, which rules Gaza.

While the politics throughout the Middle East, not just in Israel and the Palestinian territories, complicate Clinton's job, the politics in Washington -- particularly the election of Obama -- could make it easier.

"Obama brings both a lot of hope and high expectations throughout the Arab world," Zinni said. "There are such negative views of the current administration, that he can almost be guaranteed to get more cooperation and more willingness to listen. Beyond just representing a change, though, he has to really make a change -- change his approach and commit to a real process."

The possibility of a cease-fire emerged late Tuesday as Israel and Hamas continued to trade blows and the death toll rose to more than 350 with more than 1,400 injured.

Speaking at a special session of parliament Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the country is engaged in a "war to the bitter end" against Hamas in Gaza, but he declined to give details of how far that war would go to stop Hamas rocket attacks.

Barak is a candidate for prime minister in Israel's election, scheduled for February. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the current front-runner, hinted at a broader campaign to end Hamas' rule in Gaza.

Netanyahu told Reuters that a government under his leadership would use "all means necessary" to end Hamas' rule in Gaza.

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