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In Aipac Talk, Clinton Offers Up Red Meat Before Calling for Engagement With Iran

When Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed a packed crowd of Israel supporters in New York last week, she opened with a joke that signaled she was among respected old friends.

Earlier in the afternoon, Clinton said, she had been frantic, as a critical Senate vote on the minimum wage delayed her trip north for the dinner, a yearly fundraiser held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Her staff was at wit’s end trying to ensure that the lawmaker would make her scheduled 7 p.m. flight — until, that is, an Aipac “mitzvah” came to the rescue.

“At 5:00 we got a call — not from my Senate leadership or my colleagues — but from Aipac, saying that the vote would be at 5:30,” Clinton recounted, chuckling. “Your intelligence sources are certainly beyond anything we have in Washington.”

The 1,700-member audience laughed heartily, notwithstanding the allusion — however unintentional — to Aipac’s recent legal troubles, involving two former staffers accused of passing classified information to the Israelis. And they cheered as Clinton wasted little time emphatically making a hard-line case for tough action to block Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. But if Clinton started off the February 1 event with plenty of red meat, the senator eventually had plenty of attendees squirming in their seats when she issued a call for American engagement with Iran and Syria.

Making a forceful, if measured, case for diplomacy, Clinton also acknowledged that “there are no easy answers to the complex situation we face today.” She called President Bush’s steadfast rejection of talks with Iran and Syria a “good-faith position to take” that was, nevertheless, perhaps not the “smartest strategy.”

Once a first lady pilloried for publicly embracing Yasser Arafat’s wife, Suha, Clinton worked hard in 2000 during her first senatorial run and her re-election campaign last year to shore up support among pro-Israel hawks in the Empire State. As she sets her sights on the White House, however, she must find a way to maintain her pro-Israel bona fides without alienating liberals already fuming over her unwillingness to disavow completely her support for the Iraq War.

The inherent risk of Clinton’s sugar-and-medicine approach at the Aipac gathering was quickly apparent: The next day, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney blasted Clinton’s alleged “timidity” toward Iran in a speech to conservative politicians.

“At this point, we don’t need a listening tour about Iran,” Romney said.

As if to head off any such effort to paint her as a naive liberal, Clinton had assured the Aipac audience that she had “no expectations whatsoever” that “anything positive would come” from talks.

Engagement with Iran, Clinton argued, would be a way to gain more information about a formidable adversary, as it was with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

“If we are having to pursue potential action against Iran, then I want to know more about the adversary that we face,” Clinton said. “I want to understand better what the leverage we can bring to bear on them will actually produce. I want to get a better sense of what the real power centers and influentials are.”

The senator also argued that in the event the United States does need to take “drastic actions” against Iran, diplomatic action would be critical for building support in the world community and among the American people, many of whom, she said, are moving “away from a belief that the United States has a role in promoting freedom and democracy” due to the problems in Iraq.

Clinton spoke forcefully about the gravity of the threats Israel faces, especially from an Iran bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. “U.S. policy must be clear and unequivocal,” the senator said, in a line that earned the evening’s biggest applause from the crowd. “We cannot, we should not, we must not, permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons, and in dealing with this threat, as I have said for a very long time, no option can be taken off the table.”

Clinton concluded her address with some more affection for Israel, then shot a final warning: “It is not enough for us to say the right things,” she said, her voice in full crescendo. “We’ve got to be smart and tough enough to do the right things that will protect American and Israeli interests now and forever.”

Underscoring the political backdrop of her speech was the appearance of one of Clinton’s chief rivals, former North Carolina senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards. He pressed the flesh at the cocktail reception preceding her address.

Edwards, for his part, stuck almost entirely to hawkish campaign rhetoric while addressing the American and Israeli security experts gathered for Israel’s Herzliya Conference in late January. Like Clinton, Edwards stressed the line that Iran cannot be permitted nuclear weapons, but his address made no mention of engagement. Afterward, when an audience member asked, “Would you be prepared, if diplomacy failed, to take further action against Iran?” the former senator said he supported talking with Tehran.

“As to what to do, we should not take anything off the table,” Edwards said.

“More serious sanctions need to be undertaken, which cannot happen unless Russia and China are seriously on board, which has not happened up until now. I would not want to say in advance what we would do, and what I would do as president, but there are other steps that need to be taken. For example, we need to support direct engagement with the Iranians; we need to be tough. But I think it is a strategic mistake to avoid engagement with Iran.”

At Clinton’s Aipac turn, a faint smattering of applause could be heard as the senator referenced Bush’s policy of shunning all talks with Tehran, while polite clapping greeted her own call for diplomatic engagement.

Milling around coffee and nondairy cookies after the address, the crowd had a mixed reaction to Clinton’s call for engagement.

Two 30-something Republicans from Manhattan thought Clinton’s call for talks was naïve; some Democrats could be heard echoing the same view, while a self-described “dyed in the wool liberal” doctor from Livingston, N.J., said he was pro-Israel and fully in support of Clinton’s remarks.

A broad, cautious middle included Eli Hertz, an American citizen who has lived in the United States for more than three decades but who was raised in Haifa. Hertz, who chairs the Middle East watchdog group known by the acronym Camera, voted for Bill Clinton twice and then George Bush in 2000 and 2004 — and said his vote for 2008 is wide open.

“I just want to know that a commitment is a commitment,” Hertz said, pondering his chances of backing Clinton. “What she said is logical. It was very important that she qualified [her call for engagement]. She made it very clear that it might not work from the beginning — and I don’t think you get bad points for trying.”

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