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In Newly Released Emails, Hillary Clinton Seeks Advice on How To Navigate American-Israeli Relations

Clinton’s emails show the new secretary of state seeking to strike a diplomatic balance between mollifying the Israelis and heeding warnings of human rights violations and possible war crimes

by Tess Owen
Aug 1 2015, 3:30pm

Baz Ratner/POOL/EPA

The most recent batch of Hillary Clinton's emails, released by the State Department on Friday, shows the newly appointed secretary of state navigating the delicate US-Israel relationship in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 Gaza War.

The heavily redacted emails were the third major release from the cache of over 30,000 emails that Clinton turned over last year amid criticism that she violated transparency laws by using a private email server for work-related matters.

On September 8, 2009, Clinton received an email giving her a heads up on the imminent release of the 2009 Goldstone report on Israel's Operation Cast Lead offensive in the Gaza strip. Listed under "Legal Issues," the memo states "it will be highly critical of Israeli actions."

The Goldstone report, named after South African judge Richard Goldstone, who headed the United Nations' Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilians and indiscriminately attacking civilians areas — war crimes under the Geneva Conventions — during the 22-day Cast Lead offensive. 

The US response to the report would require striking a sensitive, diplomatic response to the Israelis' rejection of the UN's findings while also respecting the report's allegations of human rights violations and possible war crimes. 

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In her emails, Clinton seems unsure of how to proceed. The report would be submitted to the UN General Assembly's Human Rights Council. She emails her adviser, Jacob Sullivan, seeking advice.

"What's the guidance on what I should say? Mitchell just reported to me how strongly the Israelis feel that the POTUS and I speak out forcefully about it now," Clinton wrote. "And they said if there's a vote in the UNGA that's the end of the peace process. What do you know? Mitchell at my request is calling [then-White House Chief of Staff] Rahm [Emanuel] and [US Ambassador to Israel] Dan Shapiro to report and be sure POTUS knows before he tapes shows today."

Only six countries, including the US, moved to block the report. The US called it "deeply flawed."

It had been a tense year for Israeli-American relations. President Obama was increasing the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to recognize Palestine's statehood, saying in a speech in Cairo that year that he didn't "accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" and said they "undermine efforts to achieve peace."

On September 22, Clinton writes to Samuel "Sandy" Berger, who advised both her and Bill Clinton on national security issues. 

"Let me know how you think today played," she wrote, perhaps referring to Israel's agreement to a partial freeze of settlement construction on occupied territory, ahead of the Obama administration's first US-Palestinian-Israeli summit.

Related: The State Department Just Dumped Another Batch of Hillary Clinton's Emails

The previous week, Berger emailed Clinton with some suggestions on how to handle Netanyahu — or "Bibi", as he is often known — in the agreement talks.

"The objective," Berger writes, "is to try shift [sic] the fulcrum of our current relationships with Bibi from settlements - where he thinks he has the upper hand - to ground where there is greater understanding in Israel of the American position and where we can make him uneasy about incurring our displeasure."

In 2011, Goldstone (who had been vilified by supporters of Israel after the publication of the report) wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, titled "Reconsidering the Goldstone Report in Israel and War Crimes," essentially retracting the allegations he made in 2009.

"I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes" Goldstone writes. 

Three co-authors of the report rejected Goldstone's retraction.

Now that the former secretary of state is running for president of the United States, Clinton's navigation of the American-Israeli relationship is being watched closely. Clinton is touting herself as a loyal friend of Israel, even writing a letter to Israeli-American media mogul Haim Saban and other Jewish organization leaders condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement (BDS). Saban and his wife have contributed over $35 million to the Clinton Foundation. 

Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen

Watch the VICE News documentary, "Crime & Punishment in the Gaza Strip."